Story and Photos by Christopher Chávez
I held it in my hands; a long ivory tusk weighing about one hundred pounds. It was yellowed and coarse with several markings carved into it. Likely some sort of inventory code marked by the officer who confiscated it. And then I put the tusk back into its place within a mound of other tusks. There were several hundred tusks in this particular mound, representing over fifty elephants. And this mound was just one of about a dozen.
This stockpile of ivory was to be set on fire the very next day as part of a public ceremony presided over by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Several other African heads of state would be in attendance because, unfortunately, public ceremonies like this happen too often across Africa, in countries where the poaching of elephants and rhinos runs rampant. The public gesture of burning ivory is designed to send a message to poachers that there is no profit in this business, but this particular burning was remarkable because it accounted for about 105 tons of ivory; reportedly biggest stockpile of ivory in history.
I hadn’t intended to visit this site, but on a recent trip to Kenya this past spring, I decided to take a side visit to Nairobi National Park, just outside the capital city. Just as I began my visit, my guide Timon asked me if I wanted to see the site of the famous ivory burnings. I had never heard about the ceremony, but Timon excitedly reported that it was a national event that happens every several years in Kenya. In a day, these mounds would be consumed.
When we arrived just outside the site, we encountered laborers working furiously to set up the stages, cell towers and tents needed to make this a global, media spectacle. To enter the location where the actual stockpiles were situated, Timon and I passed through a highly secured checkpoint. Soldiers scrutinized my passport, recorded my information, and signed me in. I would repeat this process on the way out. Even by Kenyan standards, where it is typical to encounter armed guards before entering universities and hotel areas, this space was highly policed.
A bit much, I thought, but then it hit me: A single male elephant’s tusk can weigh over one hundred and twenty-five pounds, with each pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,500 on the black market. It was like entering Fort Knox. Of course there would be someone tempted by the chance to try to smuggle out some ivory. It was like gold.
And this just represents a small portion the ivory that obtained illegally in Africa. According to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science an average of 33,630 elephants were killed each year between 2010 and 2012. That’s what happens when lives become commodities. As long as there’s a market, there’s a seller willing to secure the goods, no matter the risk. In parts of Asia, these tusks are turned into tonics and talismans. In the west they become decorative objects like vases and figurines. They are the ivory keys on the upright piano that sits in my living room. Today, it is easy to disconnect the objects we buy from the animals that were killed to make them. After seeing the carnage in Kenya, it will be difficult to make that mistake again.
Dr. Christopher Chávez is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon and a Senior Research Fellow at the UNESCO Crossings Institute for Conflict-Sensitive Reporting and Intercultural Dialogue.