The flames spread quickly and soon engulfed the pile of wire tusks – their bright red colour offering a sharp contrast to the leaden grey skies overhead at Blaauwberg Nature Reserve, the scene of the symbolic burning.
It was appropriately sombre weather in which to mark World Elephant Day, held on Friday August 12, which highlights the plight of poached elephants.
As Francis Garrard, director of the Conservation Action Trust, which organised the event pointed out, “We cannot stand idly by and watch these magnificent animals be consigned to oblivion. This mock burn is part of a worldwide call for all ivory stockpiles to be destroyed.”
Since 2010, more than 100 000 elephants have perished as ruthless poachers have killed them for their tusks, reducing the African elephant population from 1.3 million in the last century to around
Mr Garrard told Tabletalk that between 15 000 and 20 000 elephants are dying each year.
“There are very few large tuskan animals left and it’s a tragedy as they are so important genetically. Elephants, on average, live for 40 years or more and the death of one is not only a loss in itself but diminishes the herds and family groups.
“It also makes the remaining elephants more aggressive as they need to regroup and it diminishes us as humans as well,” he said.
According to the Conservation Action Trust, World Elephant Day this year is a lead-up to the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to Cites (CoP17) taking place in Johannesburg later this month. Cites is the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The conservation group says the debate over what to do with stockpiled ivory is creating a sharp divide between those who favour the destruction of the stockpiles and others who believe they represent valuable financial assets.
“The South African government refuses to destroy its stockpile, unlike the 25 other countries that have publicly destroyed ivory to highlight that it should not be traded,” said Mr Garrard.
Together with Zimbabwe and Namibia, South Africa has submitted proposals to CoP17 that would clear the way to re-opening the international trade in ivory and allow them to apply for permission to legally sell ivory from their stockpiles in 2017.
Mr Garrard told those at the symbolic burning that South Africa’s Cites representative, Thea Carroll, claimed earlier this year that destroying ivory would increase its scarcity and therefore drive up prices, which, in turn, would encourage more poaching and illegal trade.
Yet in stark contrast, said Mr Garrard, the African Elephant Coalition, a group of 29 central, west and east African nations has submitted five proposals to CoP17 which, if accepted, would close all domestic ivory markets, prohibit the export of live elephants, list all African elephant populations in Cites Appendix I and end discussions on re-establishing a legal international trade in ivory. It also endorsed the destruction of existing stockpiles.
Since the first public destruction of stockpiled ivory took place in Kenya in 1989, 29 similar events have taken place in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. In April this year, Kenya burned more than 100 tons of ivory in what is regarded as the largest single destruction event yet.
“Burning ivory can make an important contribution towards raising awareness of the issues, stigmatising the purchase of ivory and galvanising global support for a total trade ban,” said Mr Garrard.
As the pile of burning wire tusks diminished in the blaze and turned into grey ashes, Mr Garrard commented, “These may be mock tusks but the reality is that the deaths of these beautiful, sentient animals is ongoing.
“Ultimately, the spectacle of destroying ivory in public sends a clear message to would-be consumers that buying ivory is morally unacceptable and contributes directly to the slaughter of African elephants.”