A small crowd gathered as President Uluru Kenyatta doused the first pyre with fuel and set the pile on fire. Guards stood with large automatic weapons around the perimeter, and journalists, government officials, local citizens and media personnel watched in near silence as the fire burned for days. What they were all witnessing in Nairobi National Park was the largest destruction of ivory in human history, over 105 tons of elephant ivory and 1.35 tons of rhino horn, the only remains of over 6,500 slaughtered elephants and 450 rhinos, all killed for their tusks and horns by poachers.
This move was a controversial one, as the entire stockpile was estimated to be worth nearly $110-150 million, an incredible amount of money that could have done wonders to continue developing the nation, as the president himself pointed out. But he went on to explain, “I would rather wait for the judgment of future generations, who I am sure will appreciate the decision we have taken today,” according to National Geographic. And he is probably right.
Elephant populations are dwindling at an alarming rate, with nearly 30,000 of these creatures killed each year on average by poachers in hopes of turning over a lucrative profit. The Kenyan government is hoping that destroying these ivory stockpiles will ultimately change consumers’ demand for the product, thereby dropping the price of ivory and eventually killing the incentive for poachers to target and kill the tens of thousands of elephants that are currently being hunted.
However, one of the most important aspects of this feat wasn’t simply to protect a keystone species essential to preserving local ecosystems; burning pyres of ivory worth hundreds of millions of dollars sent a loud symbolic message. “For us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants,” said President Kenyatta in a speech to the nation.
Other nations have taken other routes, with South Africa and Namibia both holding onto their ivory in hopes of possible future sales. Some countries have decided to make the most of existing ivory, such as Botswana, which in 2014 revealed a gigantic sculpture made of tusks in the shape of in elephant right in the middle of its international airport, a clear reminder to all to whom these tusks are most essential: to the elephants themselves.
Just days apart, a company in the United States made a stunning decision as well. After 145 years of performances, Ringling Bros. Circus held its final show with elephant performers, a decision announced back in March of 2015 but which came to fruition 18 months earlier than expected. This decision followed waves of protests and criticism, as well as a series of bans in many U.S. cities on the use of bullhooks. These long steel rods with pointed ends resemble fireplace pokers crafted to inflict pain, which were regularly used in “training” and “handling” elephants. The phasing out of elephants from these shows represents a shift, not just in the circus industry, but a societal one.
Our societal shift in environmental consciousness means we can start to see ourselves as a part of nature, instead of apart from it. And as we learn to respect and take care of the environment, we come to realize that elephants and their bodies, like other parts of nature, are not to be slaughtered for profits, but cared for and protected for ages to come.