Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why burning valuable ivory?

I have been thinking about this topic for weeks...
My daughter asked me the question the other day, puzzling me.
I thought she knew better and I was appalled by my silly assumption and ignorance of her knowledge and perceptions.
So here are my thoughts...
I think I am decently qualified to talk about this very complex and very debated and controversial topic.
Why? I have a doctorate in Economics, with a thesis on "wildlife as a renewable resource: sustainable development and environmental conservation in Kenya".
One of the main chapters of my thesis was the explanation of CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.
No worries, I am not going to bore you to death with academics thinking, data quotes, etc.

I will simply tell you my story, hoping it can help to better understand this very important discussion.


Let's start from what triggered my daughter's question: the burning of 105 tons of ivory and about 1.5 tons of rhino horn, in Nairobi, on April 30th.
I promised no boring data, but please allow me to put things in prospective.
That ivory and rhino horn belonged to 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos.

It takes nearly 22 months gestation to get on elephant into this World... Those 6,500 elephants came from 6,500 mothers which collectively took nearly 12,000 years to give birth to all these magnificent animals...
How about that...

Numbers can be confusing, but they help putting things in prospective...
Let me ask you to imagine this: 6,500 dead elephants are 13,000 tusks. Line them up together and you will have a path 20 km. long. Now imagine the bleeding from these tusks and you walking the path, if you have a fast pace of 5 km an hour it will take you four hours walk... in a trail of blood...

What I am trying to make you understand is that  ivory comes from an animal which has been killed. A very intelligent mammal to whom humans have been inflicting pain, panic, stress, shock... and then death...
Ivory is not an item which comes out of a factory.
It comes from a killed animal, killed through a machine gun, or a poisoned arrow, or a snare, or impaled in a trap...
That is what I would like you to imagine when you look at the below photos:


Photos by Lucrezia Belpietro

not a pile of dentine, not some inert material set to blaze in flames...

Picture those 20 km line of blood ivory.
Then imagine the paths walked by these 6,500 elephants during their lives, their survival from predators (until they met human poachers), their gathering at waterholes, playing together with their babies...
Imagine their life-full lives, the African sunrises they saw... the moonlight walks they took...

Now we can talk about the economics. Now that you understand these flames are the flames of 7,000 large mammals which no longer roam the African savanna...

When I was a Westerner (was, as I am now Kenyan and find very alien to consider myself a Westerner...) I was adamantly convinced that the future conservation of wildlife was intrinsically linked to adding value to the animal. In which sense? Simple: make sure the use of wildlife is economically productive and wildlife will be preserved, as it pays off to do so.


When in 1989 Daniel Arap Moi, then President of Kenya, set on fire ivory in Nairobi, I was saddened by what I then considered a wasteful destruction. How blind and ignorant I was...
It was a brave gesture and strong statement: we are not interested in economic gains from the sales of ivory, we want to protect our elephants (which were in desperate need of protection, having been annihilated from 168,000 to 15,000 in the previous 15 years!).
Back then, with my very Western eyes, I was thinking: "Game cropping? Hunting? Why not, if done viably, with the aim to dedicate vast wilderness to a sustainable wildlife population".
Then I moved to Africa permanently... and I realized how presumptuous and impractical my thoughts were.
I have never witness systematic game cropping and hunting done properly and with sustainability as the ultimate end.

The 1989 ivory burn was minimal, a mere 12 tons, compared to the 105 tons burnt this year.
Yet it sent the right message.
CITES protected the elephant, ivory was not tradeable and the war on ivory poaching was won. Almost instantly (and thanks to the superb work of Dr. Leakey and his team of passionate Kenyans, making the amazing Kenya Wildlife Service).
Elephant population in Kenya was then on the raise, after 15 years of terrible decline.

Other African Countries kept "crying", pretending their elephant populations had to be culled. Why do I say pretending? Well they had to be culled because those Governments made the choice of not having enough wilderness areas for their elephants population, therefore declaring an otherwise shrinking elephant continental population, redundant!
Their argument "let us sell our legal ivory to finance our conservation work" was unfortunately accepted.

When a quota of "legal" ivory was allowed into the market, poaching skyrocketed.
No one with intellectual decency can deny the correlation between the spiking of poaching and the allowed ivory trade.
And it has been like that in every instance of approved sales or even perception that a legal sale would be approved.

That is why I am not writing what is the value in $ of those 13,000 tusks...
Ivory does not have a value.
It must not have a value.
If we accept that it has a value, we accept that is tradeable.
It must not be tradeable, otherwise the remaining 400,000 African elephants will be soon gone.

Let me ask you a question, and it a serious one.
I have written these thoughts because of my daughter's bewilderment on why precious ivory was destroyed.
Do you have a daughter? Do you have a son?
How would you feel if the Police Department would argue that they need to sell into the market the cocaine, heroine and whatever other nasty drug they confiscated, so they can finance their police activities?
You would ask if somebody in the Department is mentally ill, will you not?
Well, this is how I feel when we accept that elephants can be killed for their ivory so that we can finance their protection. It is simply insane.


By Luca Belpietro
Founder Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust


Monday, May 23, 2016

A Chyulu Monday morning...

Misty morning, low clouds, I have to fly to my "neighbor", Richard Bonham, a 3 hours drive or 10 minutes flight away...
Hornbills are up, the Guinea fowls are quite noisy already, even if it is not even 7 am...
Richard and I have a meeting to talk about how to better deliver our conservation programs in the Tsavo Amboseli ecosystem.
Not the best weather to fly in...
Few impalas run away from the path which takes me from home to the workshop. 5 minutes drive among jumping elands and some curious hartebeests and I am in my 206. A hartebeest is not too happy to give way on the runway, I am definitively disturbing his Monday morning breakfast...

Engine checks, short roll and I am in the air, just below the misty clouds. Few raindrops help cleaning my windshield. I am flying few feet off the top of the trees, when I see a tower of giraffes and climb a bit. Acacias are covered in a blanket of white flowers, zebras are marching to the waterhole...
10 minutes of beautiful scenic flying and I land at Richard's "airstrip", a short up-climbing clearing on a gently sloped foothill of the Chyulu.
LLJ: L(orenzo) L(ucrezia) J(acopo), my giraffed Cessna 206
We have a lovely breakfast and we enjoy catching up on a ton of things we are both doing. We share our disappointments about how a lot of people do not get what we do, how they do not understand how hard is for the Maasai to coexist with wildlife and how our efforts are indeed so productive...
We talk about the increased number of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, buffaloes, lions... We are not self-celebrating, we are simply sharing facts and thoughts. We are both worried about a less positive animal increase: Maasai livestock...
It is so refreshing to hear Richard telling me that he saw Joyce Poole few days ago and that she was amazed by how much wildlife she saw in Amboseli, compared to 20 years ago, when she was based there studying elephants. She and her researchers were getting excited when they were seeing a giraffe there, now they are super common. 20 years of combined antipoaching and community involvement, between Richard and I, are paying off...
We go through some camera traps images, two males lions came from the Maasai Group Ranch I work with, into the one Richard is operating.
We know in both Group Ranches lions number are significantly up. Something to happily celebrate.

Time to go back home, a quick roll downhill the "airstrip", with senses alerted about hartebeests crossing it, and I am flying over the plains. Pass few baobabs, few herds of wildebeest, dazzles of zebras... I fly to Soitpus (the bluish rock, in Maa) to check on Rueppel's griffons nesting... and I land at my home's airstrip. A greased landing makes my already good mood even better...

I tie down the aircraft and drive home. At the salt lick I meet a well known friend. He is walking on the road, I switch the Land Rover off and he stares at me. There is something about leopard's eyes which is hard to describe... and their powerful posture.... We gaze at each other for at least a minute, he then gently walks off the road and disappears in the high grass. I see him three more times, while he keeps walking away, only twice looking back at me, appearing totally undisturbed and peaceful...
My spotty friend...
Time to be in the office... I get back in the Land Rover and just before arriving at the lodge a rock python crosses the road, just after few young elands jumped off to show their agility.

Not a bad way to start the week... this Monday morning reminded me of how lucky I am to call the Chyulu Hills home, the Maasai landlords my friends, and to be dedicating my life to protect this special African paradise...

 Luca Belpietro

Monday, April 25, 2016

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star


Kili at night by Tunc Tezel
This is no ordinary nursery rhyme but it kind of reminds me of it. I was catching up with a friend sometime back on Skype and one of the things he was telling me about was how he loved the view of the stars from Africa. He was born and bred in the US and is now living and working in Kenya. He challenged me to get outside and look up to the sky. Being that I live at camp and we basically have no ‘street lights’ like we have in the city, the only source of light I had was the torch that I was holding. I was a bit skeptical at first about looking up without having to worry about the wild animals that roam freely within the camp. But the moment I walked outside and saw the sky, I forgot about everything; the torch, the animals. The night sky was so beautiful and full, and I mean damn full of stars. I was wowed. You would think something like this would be normal, but I had never really taken more than a moment before to just look at the stars and appreciate them. He had made my day, and probably changed how I would view the skies for the rest of my life.

I went back inside and we continued to chat, excitedly explaining to him how beautiful it was. I then asked him to describe to me how the night sky looked like from his end and he told me that he couldn’t see any stars; that it was too cloudy wherever he was, and that even if there were any, the city lights outshone them. I was amazed because when he told me to look at the skies, I actually thought it was because it was beautiful from his end as well, but I later realized that he wanted me to experience the beauty of it even though he couldn’t experience it at the time, but he had before, and he knew that I would love it.

Reminds me of a story I read sometime back. I can vaguely remember it but I will try to narrate. There were two patients in the same ward. One of them had a bed close to the window, and the other would always ask him to describe to him what he could see outside the window as he could not view it from his bed. Every day, this patient’s friend described everything beautiful; blue skies, colorful days, and happy people walking by-just beautiful things. Then one day, the friend passed away. The other patient asked the nurse to move his bed next to the window. He was so happy that he could now finally see it all by himself. He sat up to have his first look and to his surprise, there was a large building that was blocking all view. He asked the nurse how then could it have been possible that his friend saw all the beautiful things and described to him all of it every day, and the nurse told him that his friend was blind, that there was no way he could have seen all the things he was telling him.

Sometimes all it takes to make the other person happy is to give them a beautiful view, feed their lives with all things beautiful especially when they can’t view it for themselves. For that, I am grateful to my friend for helping me to discover a whole new world up above my head, and more grateful that I can experience this almost every other day from my porch, and so can you. The world is wild, exotic, extravagant and bright. Instead of making hay, we should be making whoopee, that way we can rightfully appreciate what we were given to enjoy in the first place. Plan your safari today. Dream it. Live it. Be it.


Milky Way over Kilimanjaro by Dale Johnson

Written by Essie Kirai