The Kenyan government has spent the past month assembling ivory from some 10,000 elephants into a dozen pyres. These captured tusks intended for trade have gathered dust for decades, but authorities destroyed them all in a spectacular message to poachers.
Authorities torched the stockpile, weighing more than 100 tons, on Saturday, as hundreds of media, activists and locals looked on. It's the largest such burn in history -- and a last-ditch effort to curb a poaching trade that kills 35,000 elephants a year.
"Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told dignitaries before igniting the blaze, according to Reuters.
Casualties this large are hard to quantify, but if all of the elephants who once owned the ivory in Kenya's stockpile were walking across the African savannah, trunk to tail, they'd stretch for more than 30 miles, according to National Geographic explorers-in-residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
The couple has long documented the scourge of poaching across the continent, sounding an alarm that without action, we could lose the entire species within a few decades.
The Kenyan burn includes one ton of horn from rhinos, another species under threat. The animals could disappear in just 10 years if current poaching rates continue.
The Jouberts have attended several burns before, complicated ordeals that pit conservationists against those who argue a legal trade in animal parts could help curb current killing rates.
The Kenyan stockpile is worth upwards of $100 million and South Africa is sitting on nearly $2 billion in rhino horn. But environmentalists argue that such a decision would only increase demand, and elephants are far more valuable alive.
"Ivory should be worthless," the Jouberts said in an email to The Huffington Post. "While it is lying around, it is a currency and can be lifted into the marketplace, and that increases the reward for poachers and traders."
Philip Muruthi, vice president of species protection for the African Wildlife Foundation, said as long as wildlife populations are in crisis, a legal trade must be avoided at all costs. Such a decision, he said, wouldn't benefit Africans, and only leech animals from lucrative ecotourism enterprises, by far the largest source of an animal's long-term profitability.
"We cannot be saying it's time to start a legal trade," Muruthi said. "Stop the [illegal] trade, let's recover these populations, let us put wildlife at the forefront of sustainable development for Africa."
The value of a single elephant over the course of its life is worth far more than the estimated $20,000 value for a pair of tusks. A 2013 report found an elephant generated nearly $1.6 million over the course of its lifetime, more than 76 times the price of the ivory it carries.
"Kenya's elephants are worth more alive," said Rob Brandford, the UK Director of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. "People talk about the value of the ivory to be destroyed, however, it's true value is only to the elephant from which it was taken."
The plight of both elephants and rhinos is tied directly to a burgeoning industry in illicit body parts. Ivory is prized as a status symbol in some Asian countries, particularly China, where a growing middle and upper class has led to an explosion in demand. Raw ivory was selling for $2,100 a kilogram in 2014, triple the asking price from just four years prior.
And rhino horn is now worth more than its weight in gold, used as a folk medicine "cure" for everything from cancer to infertility. Some even pay up to $65,000 a kilo to use the ground up horn as a party drug, even though, biologically, it's made of the same material as human fingernails.
This demand has spurred poachers to extend their reach in search of an easy payday. Wildlife officials around Africa are often pitted against heavily armed militias carrying machine guns, flying into national parks with helicopters. Rangers, and poachers, are frequently killed.
Brandford noted the scale of the Kenyan burn is an important milestone in the fight against the illegal trade. Such a large event will attract media attention in markets where ivory is prized. Ironically, he said many people in China don’t realize the product comes from a dead elephant.
"All too often consumers are oblivious to the truths behind products they buy," he said. "Many consumers in China have believed the tusks of elephants just fall out."
Education initiatives, including one conducted in partnership with the group WildAid and basketball star Yao Ming in China, have helped curb misinformation, but the demand is still there.
Brandford said the statement behind the Kenyan burn is simple: "Enough is enough."
"It'll be too big for the media to ignore and thus impossible for poachers and consumers to not witness," he said.
The burn reflects a stark reality in which four or five elephants are killed every hour. In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were slaughtered in South Africa, a morbid record narrowly avoided last year.
"Every horn you see separated from its owner means the animal had to come down one way or the other,"Muruthi said. "It's saddening to know that this animal has just known suffering because of its horn or ivory. Every horn you see, even if it's a small piece or a bangle... an elephant died."
Brandford echoed the sentiment, noting the sheer size of the pyres would not spark celebration.
"To be surrounded by these tusks, you cannot help but visualize the elephants to whom they belonged ... to picture them alive and walking free," he said. "It also creates a feeling of anger, that such precious life could have been taken for no other reason than the greed of humankind.
"One can not celebrate evidence of such catastrophic losses, however one can honor the fallen and through the burning, look to protect the living."