NAIROBI, KENYA - Elephants are iconic symbols of Africa, but the poaching crisis across the continent has put their existence in jeopardy. Between 2010 and 2012 100,000 African elephants were killed.
But conservationists are somewhat hopeful of changing the trend after the Giants Club Summit in Kenya, where the presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Gabon pledged support for saving the African elephant.
Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton says this high-level commitment is key to stopping the poaching.
“Ultimately, a lot of decisions in Africa get taken at the presidential level,” said Douglas-Hamilton. “If the president is not behind the movement, it is just not going to happen.”
The three-day summit, organized by elephant conservation group Space for Giants, also hosted wildlife officials, diplomats, celebrities and others, to find ways to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants, with the goal of protecting at least 50 percent of these animals and their landscapes by 2020.
Donors pledged more than $5 million for elephant protection initiatives in Kenya, Gabon, Uganda and Botswana. Funds will go toward increasing frontline protection, improving technological and legal capabilities, building electrified fences, and setting up an endowment fund for protected areas.
Space for Giants legal specialist and trainer John Abwuor said he thinks the summit will resonate beyond Kenya.
“I believe that this is going to send a message to the rest of Africa,” said Abwuor. “Especially the places where wildlife are, they are going to see what the president of Gabon, the president of Kenya, the president of Uganda have done.”
Others, like South African wildlife investigator Rod Potter are hopeful, but hesitant about the event’s outcomes. He’s pleased with the commitments that were made to support programs already in existence.
“Yes, I do think something will come out of it,” said Potter. “Whether it is as big as we would all like to see, probably not.”
According to Potter, poaching will never be completely eliminated, but the goal is to control it.
“I think poaching and illegal hunting has 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.”
Burning tusks and horns
On Saturday, Kenyan authorities burned 105 tons of elephant ivory and one and one-third tons of rhino horn were set afire in the world's largest-ever burning of ivory.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged his support for a complete ban on ivory trade, vowing to submit such a proposal at the September meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, also known as CITES.
According to John Scanlon, CITES secretary-general, countries have two options for dealing with their ivory stockpiles.
“So at the moment, there’s an international ban on commercial trade in raw ivory,” said Scanlon. “Parties have two options. You can either store or destroy. Each option is legitimate. So if you do one or the other, then you’re complying with CITES and we’re happy with that.”
Kenya chose to destroy its stockpile. Kenya Wildlife Service Chairman, Richard Leakey, had strong words for countries like South Africa, that do not.
“There are some countries on this continent,” said Leakey, “and you know them better than I do, who have suggested that they will put their stocks out of economic reach for now, but they will not destroy them. They are speculators on an evil, illegal commodity.”
South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana sold their stockpiles in 2008 after CITES approved a one-time sale of ivory to China and Japan.
WildAid CEO Peter Knights said this move was, and is, dangerous.
“Well, we have tried this two times,” explained Knights. “In the 1980s, we were trying to sell ivory legally, under regulated trade. We lost half of Africa’s elephants. We went from 1.3 million to 600,000 elephants. We stopped the trade in 1989 and the poaching went down. And then again, in 2009, they sold 70 tons to China, and suddenly the poaching went up again ... So, you can not put this back on the market, just like you can not put heroin back on the market.”
South Africa, and other opponents argue that destroying the ivory makes it a scarcer commodity, resulting in prices being driven up. When ivory is worth more, they say, the poaching gets worse.
Leakey disagrees with this premise.
“That is a very ignorant idea,” said Leakey. “We did it before and the prices went from $300 down to $5, within three months of that fire. We were helped by CITES ... We will burn our ivory, but we hope that every country on the globe will support Kenya in saying ‘never again’ should we trade ivory.”
Key is reducing demand
Save the Elephant’s Douglas-Hamilton says the world’s first ivory burn, which took place in 1989 in Kenya, and a subsequent international ivory ban was largely successful for the next 20 years. There was a recovery in elephant populations in the savannahs of Africa from the poaching destruction of the 1970s and 1980s.
The new killing for ivory started up again when people in southeast Asia, especially China, became wealthier and could buy status symbols, said Douglas-Hamilton. But he said there have been some positive signs recently that demand may be receding.
“China has recognized the importance of limiting the trade, and there was a real breakthrough when President Xi Jinping and President Obama made a joint declaration that they were going to stop the ivory trade in their countries,” he said. “This sends a signal. The ivory price has dropped by more than half in China, and in Hong Kong, and we’re beginning to see the effects in Africa itself.”
The Giants Club was the highest-level event of its kind, due to Kenyatta’s attendance at the summit, along with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
These leaders, along with Botswana president Ian Khama, publishing magnate Evgeny Lebedev and Space for Giants founded the Giants Club to unite in the protection of the African elephant.
The summit and the ivory burn concluded with a unified message to the world: "Ivory has no worth, while living elephants have enormous value".
Conservationists say that once they beat poaching, the next biggest threat to elephants is habitat destruction and pressure from growing human populations, which will require creative solutions.