One of the world’s poorest countries is going to burn four tons of elephant ivory to make a bold statement.
It’s one thing to be principled when everything is going your way. It’s another thing to be principled when times are hard and sticking to principle is costly. But that appears to be exactly what the small, impoverished country of Malawi is doing. This Thursday, the country intends to make a very public display of sending $7.5 million dollars up in smoke. The reason for one of the most expensive bonfires in history? To make a statement that poaching endangered animals will no longer be tolerated in Malawi.
Malawi, a small country in southwest Africa between Mozambique and Tanzania is having a very bad year. Natural disasters have killed hundreds of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The government is in the midst of a massive scandal that involves the theft of millions of dollars. And a primary source of their very important tourism income – elephants – are being killed by poachers at a rate that will eradicate the remaining population in less than a decade unless something stems the tide of illegal slaughter.
Conservative estimates put the total loss to African elephants from poaching at around 20,000 a year. Malawi is smack-dab in the center of a region where three major elephant populations reside and where poachers are as thick as thieves. Malawi estimates its own elephant population to currently be at around 2,000 animals. It also recognizes that it needs tourism to sustain its economy, and that wild elephants are a significant component of its tourism industry.
Therefore, Malawi intends to burn its four-ton, multi-million dollar stockpile of confiscated ivory to send a message that poaching is on its way out, that, according to Ian Redmond, spokesman for Malawi’s Stop Wildlife Crime initiative, “If the killing of elephants is to stop, it is essential that the world stops seeing ivory as something of great value and high status.”
Earlier in March, Ethiopia burned six tons of elephant tusks and carved ivory. Kenya also plans to burn 15 tons in the coming week to reinforce the efforts being made to protect Africa’s wildlife resources.
“The true value of elephants lies not in their front teeth,” said Redmond, “or even in the fact that tourists will flock to take photos of them, but in the work they do every day as ‘gardeners of the forests and savannahs’.”
In spite of Malawi’s current dire situation, the people of Malawi are calling for more money to be invested in anti-poaching resources and border training, as well as stricter penalties for poaching.
“It is really inspiring that the Malawi government is prepared to make wildlife conservation a priority in these difficult times,” said Jonny Vaughan, general manager of the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.
“The crucial point here is not how much the ivory is worth in illegal markets,” said Vaughan. “What matters is the value of a live elephant. It’s been estimated that in purely commercial terms a living elephant is worth 75 times more than a dead one. That’s how important the tourism industry is.”
Redmond echoes Vaughan’s statement on the intrinsic value of elephants: “Every week each adult elephant spreads a ton of organic manure, enriching the soil and increasing its productivity. Their dung is usually packed with seeds. Elephants disperse more seeds of more species for longer distances than any other animal, thereby planting the trees of the future. The protection of Africa’s forests and woodlands is essential for climate stability and a healthy environment; protecting elephants today is protecting the trees of tomorrow.”
The bonfire will be both a condemnation of illegal poaching and a celebration of the hope and promise of a better future for African wildlife. It will begin with a march to the bonfire site by citizens and high-ranking officials, 600 schoolchildren and dozens of gule wamkule dancers, who are usually only allowed to perform at weddings and funerals, dressed as elephants.