NANYUKI, KENYA - More than 200 people, including three African presidents, attended the opening of a three-day summit Friday near Mount Kenya, where activists and officials have gathered to discuss the future of Africa’s elephants and their habitats.
Poaching has escalated to alarming heights in recent years, as 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012 alone. Tens of thousands continue to be poached every year across the continent.
The goal of the event is to find ways to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants, protecting at least 50 percent of these animals and their landscapes by 2020.
And to do so, conservationists say that government leaders must flex their political muscle in support of the cause.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta gave the opening address, urging Africans to understand that elephants are a part of their heritage.
“The protection of giants therefore requires the combined wisdom of our elders, as well as the hope of our youth,” said Kenyatta. “We have not abandoned our legacy and will not abandon our legacy to the whims of the market, but rather, today we begin taking bold steps, indeed giant steps, which...will merit the praise of our ancestors and which will inspire our own youth to recognize the intrinsic value of our national heritage.”
Kenyatta’s attendance, along with that of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, makes the event the highest level summit of its kind.
These leaders, along with Botswana's President Ian Khama, elephant protection charity Space for Giants, and publishing magnate Evgeny Lebedev, founded the Giants Club to unite in the protection of the African elephant.
Panelists Friday covered issues like the importance of properly training and motivating wildlife rangers, building a strong judiciary, and getting communities on board with conservation efforts.
'Kill the market'
Kenya Wildlife Service Chairman Richard Leakey emphasized that the market is key to the problem. The price of ivory is about $500 per kilogram, and even more he said, by the time it arrives at its destination.
“And so my appeal is let’s kill the market, once and for all,” said Leakey. “Let’s never again have ivory across international boundaries.”
He urged all African countries with ivory stockpiles to destroy them. Kenya will torch 105 tons of ivory on Saturday, with the intent to put it out of economic use.
Rod Potter, a wildlife investigator based in South Africa, says that poaching will never be completely eliminated, but the goal is to get it under control.
“I think poaching and illegal hunting have been around as long as the elephants and man has been around,” said Potter. “And I don’t think we should worry about that; what I really think we should pay a lot of attention to is being able to control it in a way that brings the poaching levels down to well within sustainable levels.”
Risk of extinction
Conservationists warn that elephants could face extinction in the wild if more is not done. More elephants are dying either by natural or illegal means in Africa than there are being born. And the loss of forest elephants is even more striking than their savannah counterparts, with an estimated 70 percent loss of these animals in the last 10 years.
In all, only about 400,000 African elephants remain.
Officials unveiled Elephant Protection Initiatives for Kenya, Uganda, Gabon, and Botswana at the summit. This includes ramping up funding for frontline protection, improving intelligence, technological, and legal capabilities, building electrified fences and setting up an endowment fund for protected areas, as well as other investments.
Conservationists say that once they beat poaching, the next biggest threat to elephants is habitat destruction and pressure from growing human populations, and one that will require creative solutions.
Summit organizers reiterated that an elephant’s tusks are worthless; only a living elephant can bring value to a community.