In The Sixth Exinction, Richard Leakey writes about the day Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s head of state in 1989, put a torch to $3 million worth of ivory. As director of the Wildlife Conservation Department, Leaky had been faced with the decision of what to do with the $3 million worth of ivory that had been seized from poachers. Elephant numbers were suffering dramatic decline and Leaky needed to do something. The bonfire sent a message to the world – to stop buying ivory and make the poaching stop. Since then, elephant numbers in Kenya have doubled, and the ivory trade was made illegal from 1990, an impressive feat as Leaky explains there was much opposition; even from CITES…*
Sadly, on 20th July this year, the Guardian published an article entitled ‘Kenya President Burns Ivory to Highlight Poaching Crisis‘. It goes on to explain that, in the style of arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki set fire to £10 million worth of ivory that had been seized in Singapore. Conversationalists are concerned that elephant numbers are on the brink of a second crisis due to rising demand for ivory from China’s middle class. Iain Dougas-Hamilton, friend of Leaky’s and founder of Save The Elephants, is quoted, claiming not to be completely pessimistic. ‘I think the Chinese can be converted,’ he says.
Hopefully, he might be right. 1989’s blaze has had a lasting impression on the west. Over the course of 20 years ‘ivory’ has become more of a dirty word to westerners, where our attitudes to fashion based on death (fur, etc.) has become fairly firmly ingrained. The rise of eco-tourism, safari holidays, and regular airings of wildlife programs on TV, have also aided in our appreciation of exotic beasts: alive, not dead. Where our colonial attitudes might have been to have something stuffed on the wall, we seem to grown to be a more appreciative sort of people. A great amount of change in a hundred years. If people in the west can care so much about the plight of elephants, I hope we have reason to hope the people of China will feel the same.
*Commission on International Trade in Endangered Species. Leaky says that ‘the chief agency of control, CITES Secretariat ivory unit, was largely financed by donations from the ivory traders themselves’. The years don’t seem to have improved CITES…