By Jonathan and Angela Scott
People have always been smitten by the beauty of elephant ivory as I discovered for myself while traveling overland from London to Johannesburg in 1974.
I am not exactly sure where I bought the small ivory carving that would haunt me in years to come. I think it was Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville), 2,000 km upstream from the mouth of the mighty Congo River, home during the 1880s to Mohammed bin Alfan Murjebi, alias Tipu Tip, the infamous Zanzibari who traded ivory and slaves.
I remember a man with a basket unwrapping packets of green banana leaves each containing ivory and choosing one particularly beautifully piece with a woman’s head carved on it. The sheen and texture of ivory makes it exquisite to the human eye and to the touch. I was spellbound by that carving; it seemed to speak of Africa. Seduced by its beauty I never gave a thought as to where the ivory might have come from. What I can be sure of now is that an elephant died an unnatural death to make that carving possible.
There was no stigma to buying ivory in those days. In the 1970s there were more than a million elephants in Africa and the streets of Nairobi were full of curio shops selling everything from ivory bangles to the most exquisite and elaborate carvings. Elephant hair bracelets were everywhere, as popular then as the copper and brass Samburu bracelets are today. But during the 1980s the demand for ivory escalated to new levels with 60,000 elephants slaughtered annually across the continent reducing the population from around 1.3 million in 1979 to 600,000 by then Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi [on the advice of Richard Leakey, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)] burned a stockpile of 12 tons of ivory on 19 July 1989.
Kenya’s elephant population had plummeted from 160,000 in the 1960s to less than 20,000 by then. I was there that sunny afternoon in Nairobi National Park to photograph an event that helped secure a ban on the sale of ivory later that same year.
As I watched I was reminded of the ivory carving that I had left in South Africa in 1975 at the end of my journey overland along with a carved wooden head of a Masai warrior purchased in a street market in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital. At the time they were my most treasured keepsakes from my trip. I never returned to retrieve my guilty secret.
Fast forward 25 years to 2015 by which time a tipping point had been reached with more elephants being killed than born. The death toll from poaching had risen to 30,000 each year across Africa with Tanzania alone admitting to the loss of a staggering 65,000 elephants between 2008 and 2012, with the epicentre of the carnage the vast Selous Game Reserve in the south of the country, an area the size of Switzerland.
A year earlier, during a press conference organised by WildlifeDirect (the conservation NGO that he founded), Leakey described the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Kenya as a “national disaster”. Leakey is without question one of the most courageous people I have ever met, prepared to speak up while others remain silent, to put his life on the line for the sake of his principles.
He lamented that known ringleaders were operating with “outrageous impunity”, and that we have to stand up and say that it cannot go on.” Kenya had been identified as the main transit point for ivory poached in Africa and destined for the Far East. Poachers had little to fear from the tough new laws designed to stem the haemorrhage with rangers ‘risking their lives’ in a war that they could not win.
With massive corruption still the order of the day, the poachers and their paymasters were able to act with impunity, something that would be impossible if they did not “have some form of protection from law enforcement agencies,” Leakey maintained. “It is a problem of a few criminals, the ringleaders are known,” he added, claiming that a core group of around 20 to 30 people were organising the mass poaching but that none had faced justice.
“We cannot afford to lose what is left,” he said “The only way to stop it is to appeal to President Uhuru Kenyatta to be bold, to take action.” Kenyatta responded by asking Leakey to become Chairman of the Board of KWS, an organisation he founded in 1989, before resigning as the director in January 1994.
People challenged Leakey to name names, but just as the quest to bring order and justice to the administration of the Masai Mara requires deep pockets and the best lawyers in the land to defend accusations in a court of law, proving the truth is not so easy. Now in his early 70s, Leakey commented at the time of his appointment as Chairman of KWS that he did not ask for the job, did not want the job, but would embrace it nonetheless. The initial search for a Director General for KWS foundered. Then in early 2016 it was announced that Kitili Mbathi, a career banker, had landed the job.
I first met Mbathi 30 years ago, and was immediately impressed by his tall and distinguished bearing, a man with an air of authority along with an easy smile. The role of director of KWS is not for the fainthearted, but Mbathi looks comfortable in his new role, and his personable yet powerful demeanour has already won him many friends.
The manner in which he and his team at KWS oversaw the preparations for the ivory burning was hugely impressive. The rangers and wardens looked incredibly smart and professional, helpful and polite to those in need of assistance as they kept a watchful eye on proceedings.
Why burn valuable ivory?
So what of the choice to torch all that ivory, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars (ivory trades in the Far East at $2,000 per kg), sums of money that most us cannot even comprehend. Some people were not convinced.
“How could you burn all that money?” was a common refrain on the street, and as I stopped to pay my parking ticket at a supermarket in Nairobi the day before the ivory went up in smoke, I enquired of the young man serving me.
“How’s life?” With a wistful smile of resignation he replied, “difficult.” Under other circumstances I might have stopped to enquire further: had some disaster befallen the man, had he lost his wife or a child perhaps? Yet I knew instinctively what ‘difficult’ meant here in Kenya. A large percentage of the population struggles each day to meet the basic requirements of life: a job, somewhere to rest their head at the beginning or end of the day, schooling for their children, clean water, sanitation, health care.
With those criteria as the benchmark I knew exactly why life was tough for the majority of Kenyans – even for the employed – and why burning ivory might not resonate with their aspirations. For many conservation priorities are seen as a luxury not a necessity. The fact is that ivory in any of its multitude of forms is not an essential of life, except for the rightful owners – the elephants themselves. Ivory is a luxury. It is a commodity, albeit one that has fascinated and beguiled human beings for centuries.
Ivory has never been thought of as having medicinal value like rhino horn, however misplaced that belief that might be. No, ivory is something to be coveted and worshiped even, with Buddhism and the Roman Catholic church both playing a significant role in fuelling the ivory trade.
Ivory statues of Buddha or the Virgin Mary are seen as sacred possessions, offering the chance for the converted to own a little piece of the spiritual world carved from an elephant tusk, despite the pleas of the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis to respect the natural world. Old habita die hard.
The whole world – not just Kenya – will be watching to see if we live up to the pledges made on the 30 April 2016, that we will prosecute the criminals and protect our wildlife. Within minutes of President Kenyatta igniting the mountains of ivory the sky filled with billowing plumes of smoke and orange tongues of fire.
The storm filled sky rendered this as an apocalyptic scene, a vision from hell, a reminder of the unspeakable, of the holocaust. It was both a chilling epitaph to the death of those 8,000 elephants and the demise of our society.
Meaning beyond the hype
I wanted to be alone, away from the press of humans, to gather my thoughts and allow the razzmatazz to evaporate from my soul. There was no doubt this was an epic scene, a photographers dream, but surely it had to have meaning beyond all the hype.
The arguments for and against burning ivory will continue. But one thing is clear, hoarding ivory for “one-off” sales does not work. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness they say, but make no mistake, our elephants and lions – ancient icons of wild Africa – are disappearing from the face of the earth at an ever execrating pace due to greed and corruption.
Perhaps 450,000 elephants and just 20,000 lions are all that is left. We can blame China and the other consumer countries in the Far East that drive the trade in ivory, but we must be held to account too.
The poachers are our poachers, aided and abetted by our middlemen and our criminal kingpins. We have tough new laws and penalties in place, but will our courts deliver? Unless we are willing to take steps to challenge the status quo at home then we have only ourselves to blame for the loss of our wildlife.
In the meantime we should honour those people who are willing to step up, to put themselves in the public eye and embrace the example offered by Leakey and Mbathi to serve a cause bigger than themselves.
Among the next generation of Kenyans to do just that are Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect and someone who is always willing to speak her truth; people like Smriti Vidyarthi, anchor of NTV Wild, a pioneering initiative to bring wildlife in to the homes of ordinary Kenyans, someone willing to demand answers of our leaders; Lena Munge, Chief Secretary of Tourism for Narok County who has pledged her support for initiatives to bring a sense of order to the management of the Masai Mara, the face of Kenya’s tourism industry that has been so terribly neglected for far too long.
Nobody can say they do not have a voice. We all do.