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Kenya Is About to Stage the Largest Ivory Burn in History

The 105-ton cache, containing tusks of elephants worth an estimated $30m, will be burned as a symbolic message at the end of a summit aiming to prevent the extinction of elephants and rhinos.
Imagen por Frederick Paxton/VICE News

In a tree-lined corner of Nairobi National Park, gleaming piles of ivory rest like giant onion husks in the sun, heavily guarded by armed park rangers.

The 105-ton cache is worth an estimated $30m and reportedly represents the tusks of more than 6,700 elephants, but on Saturday it will be reduced to ashes in the largest ivory burn ever seen.

The burn will mark the close of the Giant's Club summit of African leaders which began today in Nanyuki, central Kenya, at which Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is urging his counterparts to help save elephants and rhinos from extinction.


The number of elephants roaming Africa has plunged from approximately 1.2 million in the 1970s to around 400,000 today. More than 30,000 elephants were poached each year between 2010 to 2012, threatening to wipe them out in some African regions.

The future for rhinos, now numbering less than 30,000, is even more bleak if poaching is not checked. In the case of the northern white rhino, the chances of survival are now extremely bleak, with just three individuals remaining on the planet, living under 24-hour guard from armed rangers.

The summit aims to raise funds for conservation efforts and come up with potential solutions to the conflicts and economic factors which fuel poaching. It is being attended by the likes of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Gabon's President Ali Bongo.

The 105-ton cache is worth an estimated $30 million and will be the largest amount of ivory ever burned in one go. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

"The poachers do not care about national borders, nor do the criminal gangs who smuggle illegal wildlife parts out of the continent. There is no solution to this struggle that can be implemented by one country alone," President Kenyatta said in a statement prior to the summit.

The intention of burn organizers the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) — which is burning the vast majority of its stockpile — is to send a symbolic message to the world that live elephants are worth far more than ivory.

At the utilitarian burn site, however, the main concern is attending to the practicalities of organizing a global media event. It's safe to say preparing for the arrival of 700 media, and a list of VIPs that is said to include Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir David Attenborough, is keeping staff busy.


At the entrance to the park, staff whitewash the sidewalks and rangers practice drills. The burn site itself is a hive of activity, with diggers carving trenches into the monsoon-sodden earth, and dump trucks laying gravel.

Related: Africa Saw a Record High Number of Rhinos Poached in 2015

Robin Hollister — a engineer and pyrotechnics expert who has worked in the film industry for years on major films including the Constant Gardener, Air America, and Out of Africa — is the man they call the "burn architect." It's his job to make sure the ivory catches fire, which is no mean feat.

"Well, as you've no doubt heard, ivory doesn't burn," he told VICE News. "So the idea is that we have to raise the temperature in the fires to such a degree that it actually disintegrates. We're going to create [that] by combining kerosene and diesel and compressed air, pushing it at very high pressure, about 16 bar, down a pipe."

Engineer Robin Hollister has worked on big budget Hollywood movies for years, but is also an expert in ivory burning. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

An added obstacle has been the intense monsoon rains that have peppered the area in recent days, with each individual stack given its own pipeline, so Hollister can step on the gas in the event of a downpour.

Hollister was there in 1989 overseeing the KWS's first burn. At that time, they torched twelve tons in one pyre. Tomorrow's burn represents almost ten times that.

The mass burn was conceived by Richard Leakey, a Kenyan conservationist who has recently returned to the KWS after resigning as its director in 1994. He was also the architect of the first burn in 1989.


Related: Threatened by Militias and Traffickers, Mali's Desert Elephants Could Be Extinct in 3 Years

Leakey's reinstatement as chairman in April last year is being heralded by some as the dawn of a new era for the organization. The 70-year-old is a persuasive ambassador, with a confident, smooth delivery and a vigour that belies his age.

"It's very somber. It's tragic to see so many tusks being burned, as it represents so many elephants," Leakey told VICE News in his Nairobi office.

"If every elephant held the tail of another elephant, it would stretch for over 60 kilometers. It is a massive number of elephants that have died to produce this spectacle."

Richard Leakey, chairperson and former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, initially came up with the idea of ivory burning in 1989. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

Leakey's life is currently the subject of a biopic directed by Angelina Jolie and starring Brad Pitt, which goes some way to explaining rumors of a glittering roll call of celebrities at the event.

Leakey does not want this to mistaken for a celebration, however.

"I wouldn't see this as a celebration at all. I see it as a memorial to the tragedy," he said. "I came back with intent to clean house, and I was brought back to do just that. The president of Kenya asked me to serve as chairman for three years and to use my influence and experience and connections to try and put the thing back on its feet. And I think it's rapidly getting to its feet."

In Kenya, 93 elephants were killed in 2015, down from 384 in 2012. But campaigners say the East African nation remains a transit point for poached wildlife parts from other countries.


Conservationists have called for action ranging from improved prosecution of poachers to slashing demand for ivory and rhino horn abroad, most of it coming from Asia.

The ivory stockpile is being closely guarded by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

China and the United States, two of the biggest ivory markets, announced plans last year to enact almost complete bans on imports and exports.

The opinion of Kenyans on the summit and its grand finale spectacle seems to be divided. Some say that the burn is an event for the West, with a press allocation and VIP list to match.

But a steady stream of locals continues to visit the site. James, a Kenyan resident, poses for a selfie among the tusks.

"Elephants are worth much more than ivory, or worth more alive," he says. "And the killing of them is just a waste of it. An elephant is just so majestic and beautiful."

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant

All photos by Frederick Paxton. Follow him on Twitter: @freddiepaxton

Reuters contributed to this report

Related: Hong Kong Says It's Going to Ban Its Trade in Ivory and Elephant Trophies