WildAid director Peter Knights watched what happened next. The presence of legal and illegal ivory in the market created ambiguity for consumers as well as cover for criminal enterprises looking to launder their supply from poachers.
“We thought we had saved the elephant and then we found ourselves at square one again,” Knights said.
His organization is calling for an end to ivory sales and the destruction of existing stockpiles.
Knights believes that the 21st century equivalent of the Nairobi bonfire began in the unlikely setting of Denver, Colorado, in a warehouse on the edge of the Great Plains region of the US. It was here, at the offices of the US National Wildlife Property Repository, that six tonnes of ivory seized over time from smugglers entering the US was destroyed. It is a sign of the times that ivory is now crushed rather than burned — environmentalists had been concerned about carbon dioxide emissions.
Similar stockpiles have been crushed in the Philippines and Kenya, while Hong Kong has also agreed to destroy much of its reserve. China followed suit last month, feeding seven tonnes of seized ivory into a tarmac-crushing machine, but even this still represents only a fraction of existing stockpiles.
The London conference is expected to see rich nations pledge hundreds of millions of pounds to an emergency fund to finance anti-poaching efforts in the range states, but seasoned campaigners will be watching for commitments from the ivory-consuming countries.
Knights, who compares attempts to stop poaching in Africa with failed efforts to strangle the illegal drug trade in drug-producing countries, warns that only a “demand-side” approach will work. WildAid has persuaded famous Chinese athletes such as basketball star Yao Ming to lead a public awareness campaign to persuade Chinese consumers not to purchase ivory.
“We have tried the supply side and it clearly isn’t working,” he said.
Meanwhile the killing continues. There are no elephants in Nairobi national park, but two weeks ago, only a rifle shot away from the site where the ivory was burned, a female rhino was slaughtered — in what is supposed to be among the most heavily protected parks in east Africa.
Spotlight on the ivory trade
An estimated 25,000 elephants are killed each year by poachers, many of them linked to organized crime. In some places the species is close to being wiped out.
The illegal ivory trade in Africa was said to see its worst year ever in 2012.
In 2011, authorities seized more than 23 tonnes of ivory, which represented about 2,500 individual elephants killed.
A 1989 ban outlawed the international trade in ivory. Since then, countries with elephant populations have twice been allowed to sell stockpiled ivory taken from elephants that died naturally.
In the past few years, ivory has been destroyed in the US, Gabon, Kenya, China, France and the Philippines. This is now mostly done by crushing rather than burning, to avoid polluting the atmosphere.