“Will the ivory burn? You must be sure of that,” President Moi asked, cautiously.
In 1989, the President of Kenya worried about the reaction of Kenyan citizens at the idea of burning at least 3 million dollars worth of ivory. He was aghast when Richard Leakey approached him with the idea, fearful that Kenyans would think it would be an absolute waste of a well-traded commodity, amongst other things. After a lengthy period of persuasion, which was apparently met with much hesitation, he agreed. Moi may not have had the best track record in other fields, but I think this was one of the best decisions he made. For in July in 1989, 12 tonnes of elephant tusks were torched for the first time, making a bold statement that strengthened the country’s credibility in their war against the trade. Subsequently, after the burn, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, banned the trade, worldwide.
Turn the clock forward 27 years, and President Kenyatta repeats the same event in Nairobi, only this time, it was met with raving support from Kenyans and international audiences, celebrities, the private sector and civil society.
In November 2016, in the same vein, Vietnam destroyed approximately USD 7 million worth of ivory and horn that came from about 330 African elephants and 23 rhinos. In the wake of this unprecedented event, the Vietnamese government has committed to introduce criminal penalties for wildlife offences instead of fines. This would be a big step forward for a nation that has become one of the largest hubs of wildlife trafficking in the world.
While the mass destruction of ivory has been criticised for its potential to drive its price up due to decreasing its supply in the market, the overwhelming opinion is that the burning of tusks sends a clear message: that the tusks have no economic value, and the impact this has on social attitudes is far more lasting- which is ultimately the main change that we need.