No visitor to Nairobi’s State House, a sprawling Palladian mansion built by the Kent-born architect Herbert Backer over a century ago, could be in any doubt about the symbolic power of ivory in this, the powerhouse of east Africa.
As I walked into the seat of power of the Kenyan presidency – and the country’s most important building – two curling tusks, both 100lb at least, framed the entranceway through which all visitors, whether presidents or royalty, pass into its ceremonial rooms.
Ivory has a power in Kenya that goes beyond the merely symbolic, however. It signifies the country’s precious natural inheritance, which includes some of the greatest wildlife on Earth. It also signifies an illegal and rampant industry worth billions: elephant poaching.
Africa’s elephants could now be extinct before our grandchildren see them in the wild. This has created strong links with another Eastern powerhouse, China. Surging demand for illegal ivory from that country’s middle class has plugged Kenya, and China, into the dark side of the world economy in a way that could hardly be foreseen two decades ago.
This is what ivory is now for many Kenyans: a choice between keeping a resource they inherited on the land, and which helps makes their country great, or a way to get rich quick. That is a false choice. Kenya’s prosperity, and its connections to global markets, need never involve selling industrial quantities of ivory, with all the slaughter of elephants that entails. One man who also believes this, I was delighted to discover, is State House’s occupant – President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Forty years ago there were 160,000 elephants in Kenya. Now the number has plunged by more than 75 per cent, and the country’s rangers face a daily struggle to protect those that remain from the increasingly well-armed poacher gangs.
It is why I was delighted to find the President so committed to safeguarding those that remain. “It is our duty to preserve our remaining elephants not only for future Kenyan generations but for the world,” he told me. “We have a duty to do so. This is a heritage not just for Africans but for everyone.
“I do not see why we cannot reach a place where [elephant populations] are sustainable. We can encourage a younger generation to see a future for themselves in conservation and demonstrate to local communities how they can benefit. As a country, but also as a continent, we can do a great deal in a very short space of time.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta with Evgeny Lebedev after signing Kenya up to The Giants Club
I was in State House as President Kenyatta has become a founding member of the Giants Club, the new Africa-wide elephant-protection initiative launched by the conservation charity Space for Giants, of which I am patron. It recognises that no one country acting in isolation can save the continent’s elephants. This challenge is too big for that. So we want to bring wildlife agencies and governments together to take it up.
Kenya was always going to be at the forefront of this fight. The country has a long history of leading the way on conservation, whether in creating national parks or encouraging local communities to form their own wildlife conservancies. What I had not been prepared for was just how committed the President would be to our pan-African initiative. Not for him the kind of talking shop that plagues what we still call the developing world. He wants action rather than words.
For every country that joins the Giants Club, the commitments they sign are tailored to their wildlife agencies’ priorities. As part of Kenya’s Giants Club declaration, President Kenyatta pledged to bolster the front-line rangers who night after night go out on patrol to protect Kenya’s elephants. This will be a task in which Space for Giants will be assisting by helping provide training, equipment and resources at the country’s wildlife service’s request.
But he then went much further. On joining the Giants Club, Kenya also committed to the Elephant Protection Initiative (EPI), the conservation programme that was launched during the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade of February 2014. This means that, as a Giants Club and EPI member, Kenya will now close any remaining domestic ivory markets, refuse to trade in ivory for at least 10 years, and work to put its ivory stockpile beyond economic use. This is a remarkable development to be celebrated.
Following the signing ceremony, I went to the Kenyan Wildlife Service’s offices to see exactly what this meant in practice. Normally the site’s Rangers Restaurant is filled with staff grabbing lunch or a coffee. Today, however, almost every spare piece of floor was filled with piles of tusks as the gathered Kenyan media excitedly snapped photographs.
Many African nations have ivory stocks, much of it seized from poachers. These reserves are not only expensive to police but also at risk from corruption, resulting in pieces going missing and entering the black market. Kenya, assisting by the Giants Club partner charity Stop Ivory, is now going to conduct an inventory to determine exactly how big its ivory stocks are before burning them to ensure no more tusks can be stolen or officials tempted by the bribes on offer. Given the price they would fetch on the black market, the Kenyan government could not have ordered a more powerful demonstration of their commitment to the conservation cause.
President Kenyatta, however, had one word of caution. Because so much of the ivory poached is smuggled to Asia, and to China in particular, some observers have blamed the present crisis on the Chinese government. In fact, Kenyatta argues, it is the ruthless poaching gangs, a number of whom are also engaged in drug and people trafficking and even have links to terrorist groups, who should be the focus of disdain as they are the people who actually carry out the killings.
He fears unfairly stigmatizing the Chinese could dissuade them from engaging with the international community in stamping down on the illegal trade in ivory. “The attitude towards China is that it is the great evil but we are starting to see initiatives coming from China,” he highlighted. “I have talked with the Chinese government and if you engage with them then they engage back. They kicked off a huge campaign through CCTV [the state television network] about the importance of conservation.”
He is right. In recent months Chinese officials have imposed a temporary ban on the importation of any ivory carvings and promised to strictly control the local ivory trade until it is finally halted. China deserves praise for what it is doing – but has too often been met by suspicion by some in the West about the genuineness of its commitment.
We have started planning with the Kenyan government for a wildlife summit for Giants Club members, to be hosted in Kenya by President Kenyatta next year. This will provide a forum for Africa’s leaders to meet with key figures from the worlds of politics, business and conservation to chart a common plan for the survival of African elephants and all the species that share the giant landscapes they inhabit. We very much hope China will be present at such an event. They would certainly be most welcome.
In the meantime, the pledges made by President Kenyatta show how the slaughter of elephants is not a price that need be paid for Kenya’s march to prosperity. Africa’s development, which will no doubt be one of the great stories of the 21st century, can make a friend of conservation, rather than an enemy.