Thick plumes of smoke rippled into the air above Nairobi yesterday, spiraling from 11 monsoon-sodden piles of ivory.
The vast crematorium for some 7,000 dead elephants — with an estimated value of around $105 million — is the work of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which torched almost its entire stockpile in a ceremony on Saturday in order to highlight the impact of poaching. Another 25 tons remains cached for use in litigation or as evidence in pending cases, according to Director General Kitili Mbathi.
"The rising value of elephant ivory trade, illegally on the international market, has resulted in a massacre in the rainforest of Africa," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told the invitation-only crowd, as he called for an end to Africa's illegal ivory trade.
"In 10 years in central Africa we have lost as many as 70 percent of the elephants," he said. "The elephant, as has been said, is an iconic symbol of our country. Unless we take action now we risk losing this magnificent animal."
Kenyatta set fire to the ivory cache — and a 1.5 ton basket of rhino horn, which belched fireballs at intervals throughout the burn. Kenya is seeking a world ban on ivory sales when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora meets in South Africa later this year.
The stacks were set ablaze with a cocktail of diesel and kerosene, which was pumped at high pressure through a network of pipes running beneath the site. Heavy rain overnight in Nairobi continued into the morning at the burn site, making for challenging conditions.
"It is so saturated — the hides the skins the sacks and the wood — getting it to burn is actually very difficult," Robin Hollister, the "burn architect" said.
Estimates for how long the ivory will burn ranged from a few days to two weeks. Hollister is unsure of quite how long the fires will burn.
"A lot of it is charred at the moment," he said. "We've still got to get it destroyed. But I think if you just tap some of these they'll disintegrate already."
The burn site will remain under 24-hour surveillance, with the KWS "watching it all night and switching over fuel pipes and just taking it to the bitter end," Hollister said.
"It's good," he said. "A lot of black smoke unfortunately, but there we go."
The event had the backing of celebrities including Richard Branson, Elton John, and adventurer Bear Grylls, who sent video messages in support of the burn.
NGOs were also in attendance. Marco Lambertini, Director General of the World Wildlife Fund, praised the work of the KWS.
"It is really hard work," he said. "It is actually dangerous work right now. They are the custodians of wildlife for Kenyans right now."
"This is not just about elephants and wildlife," he added. "This goes much beyond that. This is about protecting the habitat of the species and it is about protecting the natural asset that they represent."
Critics of the event have argued that the burn will only make ivory more scarce — and therefore more valuable. KWS Chairman Dr. Richard Leakey dismissed the claims.
"Well, I think they're silly people to say that. All they've got to do is look at the records," he said. "When, in 1989, we burned 12 tons of ivory which at that time was our stockpile it was valued at $300 US dollars a kilo."
Less than six months after burning it and with a new international convention to ban the ivory trade, Leakey said, the price dropped to $5 per kilogram.
"Now if that's going to make it more valuable I don't understand economics," Leakey said.
Photos by Frederick Paxton/VICE News