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Man who came up with way to burn ivory

By Peter Muiruri | April 28th 2016

As the largest haul of ivory and rhino horns go up in smoke at the Nairobi National Park this Saturday, one man will be watching the proceedings with a measure of apprehension, wondering if the close to 25,000 pieces of ivory will completely burn to ashes.

This man is Robin Hollister, the ivory burning guru who stood beside President Moi and the then director of Kenya Wildlife Service Dr Richard Leakey on July 18, 1989, the first time for Kenya to burn her ivory in an unprecedented event broadcast all over the world.

Hollister had been tasked with coming up with a formula for burning the 12 tonnes of ivory, a task that had never been attempted before anywhere else on earth. But how did Hollister end up with this gigantic task?

It all started with a small dinner conversation in April 1989 somewhere in Laikipia, Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch to be precise.

This is the large expanse of African Savannah run by Kuki Gallmann. Dr Leakey had just been appointed to head the wildlife unit if only to stem the rising tide of poaching that almost decimated Kenyan elephants.

On this particular evening, Dr Leakey had been invited by the Association of Private Land Rhino Sanctuaries of which Gallmann was the vice-chair. The details of that small but significant conversation are captured in her book, I Dreamed of Africa.

“Richard told us that the president had agreed to burn publicly all the ivory accumulated in the ivory room in the last two years. The ivory was meant to be sold at auction and the buyers had already arrived. It amounted to twelve tonnes...Richard had cancelled the sale,” she wrote.

“Twelve tonnes!” “How do you burn 12 tonnes of ivory?” she asked Dr Leakey. “I am not sure. There must be a way. Why don’t we try?” answered Dr Leakey.

The dilemma

Gallmann and her team experimented with several ivory fragments. A lot of wood would be needed. The proportion of wood to ivory would be 10 to one, or 120 tonnes of wood to burn 12 tonnes of ivory. Gallmann wrote: “Burning a forest to burn the ivory was as environmentally unacceptable as killing elephants.” A more viable solution was needed.

Awake at night, Gallmann’s wandering mind landed on Robin Hollister, a trained pilot and an engineer freelancing in the film industry as location manager and set construction.

According to Gallmann, Hollister’s experience with special effects in an industry where blowing things up is the norm was the right man to device the correct ivory burning formula. The fire had to be instant and ‘photogenic’ enough for the congregated global press. Hollister’s formula involved dousing the ivory in inflammable, invisible glue, arranging them on a pile of wood with hidden fuel pipes connected to a generator that would spray fuel to the pile to keep the fire going. The plan worked with precision.

Last Saturday, I caught up with Hollister inside Nairobi National Park where a dozen pyres of ivory and rhino horn have been neatly stacked ready for the big inferno. Despite the muddy grounds, he was dressed in all white, with only a few specks of mud on him. “This time, the stacks are tenfold. Several heads of state will also take part in burning ivory. Nothing will be left to chance,” said the 63-year-old and alumni of the then Duke of York School, now Lenana.

Raised in Muthaiga where his 97-year-old mother still lives, Hollister has worked in the film industry for the last 37 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Notably, he was much involved in the 1985 classic Out of Africa starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.

“I was location manager and built the set for Karen Blixen’s house. I actually doubled for Robert Redford in certain scenes,” he said. Hollister was also the location supervisor for the Constant Gardener. Others include Air America, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones series, Survivor TV series, Gorillas in the Mist, and Sheena.The call of duty can come any time, even when deeply involved in ivory burning episodes, like happened during the 1989 historic burn.

“Here I was standing with President Moi and Dr Leakey. I handed the burning stick to Dr Leakey who then handed it to Moi. As soon as the pile began to burn, I rushed to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport bound for Thailand for the movie, Air America,” he says.

Saturday‘s event

Robin Hollisterand other workers on top of the first ivory pile at Nairobi National Park's ivory burning site in 1989. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

“At the Bangkok Hotel, I switched the TV to CNN and watched fresh images of the ivory burn. The girl who was showing me around the room took to flight when she saw me on TV, yet I was right there with her!” he recalled.

Towards the end of our interview, we walked towards the piles and joined Environment Cabinet Secretary Judy Wakhungu and KWS Director General Kitili Mbathi where he briefly demonstrated how the burn will take place. This time, an equal mixture of both diesel and kerosene will set the ivory on flames.

“What does all this make you feel”? I finally asked him. “I am happy and humbled to be burning the ivory and making a statement that ivory has no monetary value,” he said. “I am also sad that we have lost so many elephants, that we still have this much ivory to burn.”

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