Kenya's Ivory Burn: Constructive or Condemnable?

Olivia Engle

On Saturday, the Wildlife Conservation Department of Kenya burned over 105 tons of elephant tusks and over 1 ton of rhino tusks in a demonstration against the rise of illegal poaching and the ivory trade. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Africa has seen a catastrophic decrease in the number of African elephants on the continent from upwards of millions in the early 20th century to less than 500, 000 today.

Illegal poaching and ivory smuggling are primary factors driving the decline in African elephants. It is estimated that over 70 per cent of ivory from Africa is smuggled to China, where Ivory has immense cultural significant and the middle-class is booming. Kenya, a major habitat for African elephants, has been experiencing this problem for decades. In fact, Saturday’s ivory pyre is not unprecedented in the Great Lakes country.

In 1989, President Daniel arap Moi lit aflame 12 tons of ivory in condemnation of the dramatic increase in poaching. The previous 10 years had seen a reduction in Kenya’s elephants from 65,000 t0 17,000.

The goal in 1989 was to push for an international ban on the trade of ivory. The government of Kenya saw elephant poaching as a substatial threat to tourism. Of course, Kenya did successfully win a ban on the ivory trade in the fall of 1989, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Today the stakes appear to be higher for Kenya, particularly its President.

Precious Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta ran for presidency in 2013 under The Nation Alliance (TNA) party. He achieved a victory over the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) candidate Raila Odinga by securing 50.5% of the vote.

Kenyatta’s succession to presidency has not been without challenged. For his alleged accessory of multiple crimes against humanity during the post-2008 election violence which killed nearly 1000 people, President Kenyatta was summoned to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. He was charged with murder, deportation or forcible transfer, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts. These charges were later withdrawn by the ICC in 2015.

President Kenyatta has prioritised peace, security and anti-corruption in his term. He has worked towards peace agreements in surrounding countries and even maintained a force in Somalia, but has been unable to curb the tide of terrorism. Between 2012 and 2015 there were several significant attacks by Al-Shabaab, like the Garissa University College attack that killed over 140 people. President Kenyatta pushed uot multiple cabinet secretaries on allegations of graft, yet Kenya remains quite corrupt; its public sector ranks 139 out of 186 nations on the Corruption Perceptions Index (2015).

Throughout this tumult, President Kenyatta has maintained surprisingly high favorability ratings. The question is whether or not Saturday’s demonstration will hurt or help his reputation within Kenya.

The ivory burned this weekend was valued at over $100 million. Considering the state of Kenya’s economy, this is no small figure. With a $60.94 billion GDP, Kenya is Africa’s ninth largest economy, yet approximately 45% of the population live in poverty.

In 2012, the West African country Gabon made a similar demonstration against the ivory trade and burned several tons of elephant tusks. The loss of the estimated worth is less significant, because 50 percent of its GDP is from oil production and its per capita income is about four times that of most sub-Saharan African states.

Kenya’s GDP, on the other hand, is primarily compromised of service exports, like telecommunications services, as there is significant foreign investment in the country. Unlike many of the other sub-Saharan African states, they are not resting on abundant natural resources.

President Kenyatta did in fact take into perspective the economic realities of his country. His view is that elephant poaching is a significant risk to the tourism industry (about 10 percent of the GDP) and he chose to take a stand against the practice.

That being said, his strong position on this matter may come from a place of privilege. President Kenyatta comes from one of the most wealthy families in Kenya and is one of Africa’s richest people. Even after his proposed pay cut, he makes $132 thousand a year. Members of the Kenyan parliament make approximately $75 annually.

The latest World Bank numbers put GNI per capita at $1,290.

To put this into perspective, the tusks of one elephant can be worth many times mroe than the average annual income in many African countries. Two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds. Even if the going rate is as low as $150 per pound – estimates put it higher than that on the black market – those tusks would be worth $37,5000, which is twenty nine times the per capita GNI.

President Kenyatta is a popular figure in Kenya. But the average Kenyan citizen may begin to wonder how he can literally burn over $100 million when their country years for increased development and alleviation of poverty.

In 2014, government expenditures on salaries were twice that of development.

The data presented here is not meant to argue that poaching should be allowed. it is simply to shed light on how last Saturday’s ivory pyre might be a metaphor for the spending priorities in the current administration, given the economic realities of the country and its citizens.

(Image source: Invisible China 2014).

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