Kenya's president set fire to more than 5 tons of elephant ivory worth $16 million on Wednesday, in an act meant to focus attention on a rising tide of poaching deaths.
The bright orange flame that raced through the fuel-laden pile jumped out and nearly bit President Mwai Kibaki as he lit the mound of 335 confiscated ivory tusks and 41,000 trinkets.
"Through the disposal of contraband ivory, we seek to formally demonstrate to the world our determination to eliminate all forms of illegal trade in ivory," Kibaki told several hundred people at a rural Kenya Wildlife Service training facility in southeastern Kenya. "We must all appreciate the negative effects of illegal trade to our national economies. We cannot afford to sit back and allow criminal networks to destroy our common future."
Kenyan officials first set fire to a mound of ivory in 1989, a desperate call-to-action to wake the world to a poaching crisis that sent Africa's elephant populations plummeting. Elephant numbers are much healthier today, but elephant advocates say a second elephant crisis is coming, as China's middle class seeks to satisfy its ivory appetite.
The group Save The Elephants tracks elephant news from around the world, and cited newspaper headlines from last week that documented elephant-related busts in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Group founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton said he hopes people see Kenya's latest ivory burn as another warning that elephants are again being hunted. He said the economic loss from the ivory burning was part of the message.
"This is a clear signal that it's worth a lot more money than you could get on the market. We have to stop the buying if we want to stop the killing," he said as the ivory burned nearby. "I'm not totally pessimistic. I think the Chinese can be converted."
A global ban on the ivory trade in 1989 briefly halted the elephants' demise. But the ban's initial success has been undermined by Asia's booming demand and increasing human-elephant conflicts as people encroach on animals' land.
Africa had 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s but today has only 500,000. Kenya has 37,000 elephants, up from the 16,000 it had at the height of the crisis in 1989 but far below the country's peak.
Wednesday's burning, though hosted by Kenya, was actually carried out by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, a group of seven African countries that work to protect flora and fauna. A member of the group, Ephraim Kamuntu, Uganda's minister of tourism, said Wednesday's burning sent the signal that "the days of poachers are numbered."
The burned ivory was confiscated by officials in Singapore in 2002. It was then sent to Kenya, where DNA analysis determined that the tusks originated in Zambia and Malawi.
Kenya Wildlife Service rangers carry loaded guns and train in paramilitary tactics to hunt down poachers. But they face two major obstacles. One is that the punishment for poaching carries only a $450 fine and little or no jail time. Kenya's minister for forestry and wildlife, Noah Wekesa, asked the president to support the passage of a draft wildlife bill that would increase penalties for poachers.
The second problem is that poor Kenyans can make good money from a slain elephant's tusks. Ivory sells for between $60 and $80 a kilogram in many parts of Kenya, double what it sold for only two years ago, Douglas-Hamilton said. By the time the ivory reaches China, it can sell for nearly $800 a kilogram.
The 335 tusks were piled in a field of gritty red dirt, just off a stretch of highway where baboons walk on the roadside past safari hotels with names like Man Eaters Lodge. That smooth two-lane highway is the main artery for business in East Africa, a region where more Chinese laborers are carrying out road projects and working in energy sectors.
The director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Julius Kipngetich, noted that while East Africa's elephant populations are still relatively strong, West Africa's elephants are likely gone for good. Senegal has only eight left. Liberia lost its last one last year. Nigeria hasn't had elephants since 2005.
"The challenge in East Africa and South Africa is beginning to rear its ugly head," he said. "This is a result of growing demand in East Asia as a result of increasing prosperity. As we welcome investors in this part of the world, of course some of them come as crooks."