No one could be entirely sure that the tusks — great curves of hard dentine coated in enamel — would actually burn. To be on the safe side, park wardens doused them in gasoline and placed them in a pyre. When set alight, the ivory burned fiercely, watched by Kenyan Cabinet ministers, diplomats, conservationists and, most importantly, television crews and photographers, who relayed the images all over the world.
That was the morning of July 18, 1989, when a bonfire was made of 12 tonnes — or nearly ￡2 million (US$3.28 million) worth — of ivory in a spectacle designed to send the message that the killing of elephants and the trade in their tusks had to be stopped. In the preceding decade, numbers of Africa’s largest land mammal had fallen from 65,000 to 17,000.
“To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped, and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be persuaded not to buy ivory,” then-president Daniel Arap Moi said. “I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory.”
Remarkably, they did. And soon after that, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed ivory in its Appendix I, effectively creating an outright ban on the trade.
The site where the pyre was lit, 3.2km inside the gates of Nairobi National Park, is marked by a grandiose stone tomb. It sits in a neglected picnic site where a scattering of concrete benches surrounds a faded sign that recounts the historic day and concludes: “As you picnic here, reflect and join Kenyans in saying ‘Never again.’”
However, for all the imploring, it has happened again. In the past five years, the poaching crisis has returned in response to rising demand from newly wealthy markets in Asia.
In the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, home to one of the two largest remaining populations of African elephants, numbers had fallen from 50,000 in 2007 to 13,000 by the end of last year. Up to 100 elephants a day are thought to be poached for their tusks in a slaughter worse than that of the 1980s, according to conservationist Allan Thornton, president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, the international organization that provided much of the evidence on which the original ban was based.
The rhino — prized for its horn, which is thought in some cultures to have medicinal properties — is in similarly dire straits. It is in this context that up to 50 world leaders will converge on London on Thursday for a conference on the illegal wildlife trade that may represent the best hope for reversing the trend.
“Hopefully we are building to a moment similar to 1989, although the current situation is far more damaging to Africa’s elephant populations,” Thornton said.
“Poaching and the illegal ivory trade appear to still be gaining ever greater momentum to supply the markets in China and Japan,” he said.
The 1989 ban and the accompanying publicity turned Western public opinion against ivory. Within a year, the price of ivory had plummeted from tens of thousands of pounds for a carved tusk to just ￡1 a kilo.
Among the “range states” — countries where elephants live in the wild — there was disagreement over the 1989 ban. Several southern African nations, including Botswana and Zimbabwe, argued that stockpiled ivory, which they said had been collected from elephants that died of natural causes, should be sold at auction. The first of these legal auctions took place in 2002. A second “one-off sale” was allowed in 2007, despite fierce opposition from conservationists, who objected both to the auction and to CITES’ approval of China as a bidding nation. They warned that China was in no position to control the illegal trade and that the 70 tonnes it bought would spur demand.