Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in Ivory Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To alert the world to the plight of elephants and other endangered species and to encourage the establishment of an international ban on ivory trading, the president of Kenya burned confiscated elephant tusks worth three million dollars.

Summary of Event

In September, 1990, Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society, featured a special report on Africa, the opening page of which displayed a color photograph of an immense bonfire that had been set in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park on July 18, 1989. The fire had been ordered by Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, to dramatize growing demands for an end to the ivory trade and for the initiation of serious attempts to protect endangered species. Elephants, poaching Poaching;elephants [kw]Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in Ivory (July 18, 1989) [kw]President Burns a Fortune in Ivory, Kenyan (July 18, 1989) [kw]Fortune in Ivory, Kenyan President Burns a (July 18, 1989) [kw]Ivory, Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in (July 18, 1989) Ivory trade Elephants, poaching Poaching;elephants [g]Africa;July 18, 1989: Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in Ivory[07340] [g]Kenya;July 18, 1989: Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in Ivory[07340] [c]Animals and endangered species;July 18, 1989: Kenyan President Burns a Fortune in Ivory[07340] Moi, Daniel arap Leakey, Richard E. Babu, David Ogutu, Mathew Kenyatta, Jomo

What President Moi set ablaze while cameras filmed were two thousand elephant tusks (twelve metric tons of them) that were then worth three million dollars on the world market. The tusks had all been confiscated from poachers, sad testimony to the ongoing annual slaughter of thousands of elephants and rhinoceroses. To ensure that the ivory would burn and this symbolic propaganda event succeed, the tusks were coated with a flammable glue, and the huge ivory pile, which rose nearly twenty feet, was placed on top of gas pipes and kindling. By the time the pyre had cooled, the message to “ban the bloody ivory trade” had reached audiences around the world. The Kenyan government swiftly gave meaning to its rhetoric by imposing the death penalty on poachers and by calling for them to be shot on sight.

The idea for Nairobi’s sensational fire came from Richard E. Leakey, the paleoanthropologist son of the famous archaeologists and anthropologists L. S. B. Leakey and Mary Leakey. He had been appointed by President Moi to direct the Kenya Wildlife Service []Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and, with Moi’s full support, had begun the daunting task of reforming the inadequate, ill-trained, corrupt, and inefficient organization. To be sure, Kenya had long had hunting bans in effect, the first imposed in 1977 by the newly independent country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The money and reliable personnel essential to effective enforcement of such measures had been lacking, however.

Kenya Wildlife Service director David Western stands next to the carcass of an elephant whose ivory was poached in Kenya in February of 1998. Poaching is a major problem faced by wildlife management personnel throughout the world.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Throughout the 1980’s, worldwide pressure from conservationists, international organizations, governments, and small yet influential publics laid the groundwork for new actions intended to protect Africa’s dwindling herds of elephants and rhinoceroses, as well as their habitats. In June, 1989, for example, President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;ivory imports announced a moratorium on commercial imports of ivory into the United States. Similarly, in October, 1989, signatories to the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1973) (CITES) decided after intensive debate to move the African elephant from the CITES list of threatened species to the more ominous list of endangered species. Endangered species;African elephant The 103 participating CITES nations also agreed to ban ivory trading among them. The ban was set to remain in force for two years.

Agreement on the CITES ban was not unanimous, however. With hundreds of tons of previously stockpiled ivory located in Hong Kong, Great Britain put its assent on hold until these stocks had been sold. China also reserved judgment on the ban, as did five Southern African countries—Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—that had adopted their own approaches to safeguarding elephants and other wildlife and to discouraging traffic in ivory.

The problem that CITES and conservationists—among them Richard Leakey, Mathew Ogutu, and Tanzania’s director of national parks, David Babu—were trying to address was the depletion of Africa’s elephant and rhinoceros herds. Animal experts had noted, for example, that an untouched Africa could have sustained an elephant population of five million. Even in 1989, they reckoned that there was sufficient habitat for two million. Between 1975 and 1985, however, Africa’s 1.3 million elephants declined in number to an estimated 600,000 in thirty-six of the forty-four countries where they remained. In Kenya, the elephant herds diminished from 170,000 in 1969 to fewer than 20,000 in 1990; neighboring Zambia lost 80 percent of its elephants in a single decade.

The decline in Kenya and the rest of Africa was attributable to two primary causes: the price of ivory and the poverty-stricken state of many African nations. Profits from the ivory trade offered immense rewards to people whose annual incomes seldom rose above a few hundred dollars. With high levels of demand for ivory in the Middle East and in southern and eastern Asia, where it was used variously for carvings and statuary, traditional medicines, and sexual stimulants, the price had risen from $2.45 per pound in the early 1960’s to more than $100 per pound by the end of the 1980’s. Experts estimated that world trade of about 825 tons of ivory per year was worth $550 million.

In addition to losses from hunters, poachers, and the ivory trade, there was a decline of ivory-bearing animals and of their habitats as a result of Africa’s population growth and persistent poverty. In 1990, demographers predicted that Africa’s 500 million people would increase to more than one billion by early in the twenty-first century and thus would continue to crowd wildlife out of its habitats and destroy those animals that menaced their crops and families. African population growth has moderated somewhat since these predictions, and much of the population growth has been in the cities, but poverty still persists.

Kenya’s population problem was a microcosm of that of the entire continent of Africa. During the late twentieth century, the Kenyan population was increasing at twice the estimated rate of world growth, doubling in number every seventeen years. Moreover, many Kenyans were culturally ill disposed toward wildlife and eager to clear it from the paths of their farms and settlements. Even with the effective reforms in operation and with the ivory trade eliminated, the future remained bleak for elephants, rhinos, and other African wildlife.


By 1993, the trade in ivory had been rendered uneconomical and all but halted. International moratoria, the CITES ban, and reorganizations of park guards and national police, as well as the display of new determination by governments and persistent pressures from world opinion, proved to be important factors in attaining this objective. Ivory trade

Asia and the Middle East previously had been the chief markets for African ivory, but by 1994 dealers and ivory carvers in these areas faced bankruptcy. The Japanese, who for years had been the world’s major consumers of ivory and who, until 1989, had proven intractable in the face of international criticism, suddenly complied with the CITES ban. Japanese piano makers such as Yamaha, for example, declared that they would switch to polymers and plastics for their keyboards, and ivory craftsmen turned to alternatives such as Siberian mammoth ivory, walrus, hippopotamus teeth, bone, and lesser grades of “ivory” extracted from nonendangered species.

The world price of ivory fell precipitately. In Kenya, where the annual slaughter of three thousand to four thousand elephants had brought prices of $150 per pound, the black-market price dropped to $5 per pound in the early 1990’s. A spokesman for the World Wildlife Federation reported that prices for raw ivory in central and east Africa had fallen by 1990 to between $2 and $20 per pound. Such prices were far too low to sustain a profitable ivory trade. One immediate result was that in Kenya, for example, the number of elephants that were killed by poachers each year dropped to fifty.

Strategies for the enforcement of antipoaching laws and of the ivory ban, as well as for the protection of elephants and rhinos, varied among African nations. In Kenya, Richard Leakey, backed by President Moi, thoroughly reformed the force of antipoaching guards, rangers, and game wardens. Personnel in these forces were rigorously trained, well armed and equipped, and paid salaries high enough to tempt them away from corruption and inefficiency. During their first year in action, in fact, they killed 150 poachers.

Leakey assumed responsibility for raising most of the money required for these reforms, approximately $150 million per year. His long-term objective, however, was to convert Kenya’s national parks and wildlife reserves into self-sustaining operations through the encouragement of tourism. He hoped that Kenya’s substantial tourist revenues would be allocated entirely to wildlife management and park maintenance. Leakey believed that the era of African wildlife running loose was past, and that the survival of African species depended on making wildlife pay its own way. He thus envisioned a differentiated park system in which some parks, such as Amboseli and Nakuru, would be developed for intensive tourism, others would be tailored to high-income, privacy-loving visitors, and yet others along Kenya’s northern frontier would be preserved free of human incursions as genuine nature reserves.

Since by 1990 it appeared that Kenya’s elephants might increase their numbers, Leakey, in order to cull elephant herds, was prepared to generate some revenues from carefully controlled safaris and sport hunting. By sharing such revenues with the growing populations living in and near the national parks, Leakey expected that in time more Kenyans would perceive wildlife as beneficial to them and join in protecting it, as it was in their economic self-interest to do so. Many conservationists, however, reacted to this approach either with caution or with downright skepticism. In any case, Kenya’s elephant population grew, reaching approximately 30,000 by 2005.

Elsewhere in Africa, different problems generated different governmental and organizational strategies. By preserving national parks, managing wildlife, and promoting, yet regulating, tourism—strategies of “sustained animal development”—Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe either kept their elephant populations stable or increased their numbers so dramatically (they doubled in Zimbabwe, for example) that by 1991 the populations grew too large. “Surplus” elephants were therefore culled and shot, the ivory sold, and the revenues channeled into rural conservation programs.

Neither conservation and antipoaching measures nor the CITES ban produced the same apparently positive results elsewhere. Despite the efforts of David Babu in Tanzania, for example, the elephant population in Serengeti National Park declined from 4,000 in the mid-1980’s to roughly 450 in 1991, and that in Selous Park, Tanzania’s largest, dropped from 100,000 in the mid-1970’s to fewer than 30,000 by 1991. Tanzania’s antipoaching forces remained few in number, underpaid, and largely ineffectual. In addition, nearly everywhere in southern and central Africa, rhinoceroses, particularly black rhinos, were on the verge of extinction. Overall, Africa’s black rhino population fell to 2,400 in the mid-1990’s from 65,000 in the mid-1970’s before recovering to about 3,600 in 2004.

Kenya, too, continued to have problems. Poachers whose business had been disrupted by the ivory ban began killing foreign visitors, thus discouraging the tourism on which wildlife programs depended. Even veteran elephant watchers such as zoologist Cynthia Moss were uncertain about the long-term success of Richard Leakey’s strategies. A further problem was that African governments and conservationists were far from agreed among themselves about the efficacy of the strategies that were in force. Ivory trade Elephants, poaching Poaching;elephants

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Jonathan S., and Thomas O. McShane. The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Attacks traditional Western attitudes toward Africa and its wildlife. Critical of the images cast by the World Fund for Nature and internationally known conservationists such as Dian Fossey and Bernhard Grzimek, an expert on the Serengeti. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonner, Raymond. At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Presents a stimulating argument in favor of African nations encouraging hunting rather than tourism because tourists are more harmful to Africa’s ecology than hunters. Advocates Africanization of wildlife staffs and placing indigenous peoples’ needs above those of animals. Covers six African nations. Includes brief bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Robert F. “Farewell to Africa.” Audubon 92 (September, 1990): 50-108. Comprehensive report on Africa covers reactions to the ivory ban, the personalities of the people involved, the variety of conservation strategies in place, and their tentative results. Beautifully illustrated with color photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moss, Cynthia. Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family. 1988. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Classic work by an American zoologist and ethnologist who spent nearly twenty years, through the early 1990’s, observing and helping to protect elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orenstein, Ronald, ed. Elephants: The Deciding Decade. Rev. ed. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books, 1997. Grim analysis by a noted conservationist traces the elephants’ decline throughout much of Africa. The subtitle refers to the author’s belief that the 1990’s would determine which conservation strategies could be sustained and whether in the long run the elephant and other endangered species will be saved. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owens, Delia, and Mark Owens. The Eye of the Elephant: An Epic Adventure in the African Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Describes the elephants’ plight during years when their slaughter cut herds by more than half. Sad but fascinating reading. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owens, Mark, and Cordelia Owens. Secrets of the Savanna: Twenty-Three Years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Moving account of the authors’ work with the people and elephants of Zambia. Includes photographs, maps, and index.

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