Will burning of ivory trigger more thirst for poaching?

Kenya will destroy 105 metric tonnes of ivory and keep seven tonnes of tusks for research. PHOTO | FILE
Kenya will destroy 105 metric tonnes of ivory and keep seven tonnes of tusks for research. PHOTO | FILE 

As Kenya prepares to torch an estimated five per cent of the world’s seized ivory Saturday, critics argue it will not address the threat of poaching and could trigger a sharp increase in prices.

Controlled hunting and regulating trade could save the endangered animals.

Mike Norton-Griffiths, a an ecologist told Bloomberg that Kenya is making a mistake. Taking such a huge resource completely off the market may reverse the drop in prices.

The right thing to do, the Kenyan ecologist said, was to make peace with the consumers of ivory.

But for Kenya, it aims to push the world to demonise the trade and issue a complete ban, making ivory valueless.

For years, Kenya’s challenge has been the elephants on transit. Elephants know no borders and so does ivory and rhino horn trade.

Despite Kenya’s poaching numbers dipping 40 per cent last year compared to 2013, Dar es Salaam Port has created a new route for trophies, with poachers targeting wildlife crossing borders.

Kenya will destroy 105 metric tonnes of ivory and keep seven tonnes of tusks for research. Another 25 tonnes is held as evidence in pending court cases. All the tusks account for about 4,000 dead elephants.

‘‘Elephants know no national borders and keep following their traditional routes used in the past centuries. We have to protect them wherever they go,” said Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director-general Kitili Mbathi.

“A global ban by the world’s 182 State parties and signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) can give us a turnaround,’’ he said.

Last February, Morgan, a collared-male elephant walked for 220 kilometres from Lamu before crossing into Somalia in search of a mate but turned back after failing to find one.

Poachers wait for Kenyan elephants to cross the border where they strike with a vengeance, especially in Tanzania’s parks where they depleted populations by 60 per cent.

The rangers are also few. ‘‘The ratio between elephants and rangers in Kenya is unsustainable. We have about 3,800 rangers and the area that each is expected to cover is impossible,” said Daudi Sumba, an official from Kenya-based Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

Several game reserves are located near the borders such as Tsavo East and West next to Tanzania’s Mkomazi region as well as Amboseli that sits on the foothill of Mount Kilimanjaro, making it easy for the animals to cross in search of vegetation.

An adult elephant consumes about 136 kilogrammes of vegetation daily and spends about 18 hours eating. As climate change reduces vegetation, more wildlife will keep crossing the border.

Ngugi Gechaga, the KWS spokesman, said the main threat to the vegetation within parks and reserves is animal incursion.

“By limiting the domestic animals that come to graze we reduce the competition for vegetation with herbivores.

The ranges are always alert in managing the borders near communities with large herds of cattle,” he said.

He said the fragile soil type in Amboseli park, for instance, does not allow for vegetation to regrow quickly especially in the presence of elephants who tend to overgraze.

‘‘With the electric fence the area is fully protected and able to recover,” Mr Gechaga said. Kenya is pushing for the world to declare ivory trade as illegal where all nations will punish anyone found with an item made from ivory while the tusks will also be rendered valueless.

Kenya has about 38,000 elephants and a paltry 1,039 rhinos whereby 48 of them are in Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The KWS Narok county warden Collins Omondi said despite reduction in poaching in the Maasai Mara by 50 per cent, poachers killed 18 rhinos and 51 elephants last year.

About 59 rhinos were killed for their horns in 2013, compared to 30 in 2012, while 16 rhinos have so far been killed this year.

Nationally, about 384 jumbos were killed in 2012 and 302 the following year. Last year, 137 elephants and 24 rhinos were killed. Mr Mbathi said that a national exercise to implant an electronic microchip in every rhino is underway in Maasai Mara and is expected to end in December.

The chips will be inserted into the horns of each rhino at a cost of Sh300,000 per chip following donations by leading international conservation organisations led by the World Wildlife Fund.

Wildlife plays a critical role in tourism, the country’s highest foreign exchange earner. While the sector seeks to diversify to other niche products like conference tourism, beach and safari remain the biggest attractions.

Lax rules are also to blame for the rise in poaching. A study by Wildlife Direct, a wildlife conservation group founded in 2005, conducted in 2014 showed that while thousands of poachers had been arrested for killing elephants and rhinos in recent years, only eight convicted poachers were jailed between 2008 and 2013 as most offenders were released after paying fines.

Stiffer penalties have since been instituted with the enactment of the Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013 which imposes a minimum fine of Sh20 million or life imprisonment for offenders against endangered species.