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Burning elephant tusks is pointless gimmickry

By Makau Mutua | May 8th 2016

Every so often, Kenya resorts to a terrible gimmick. In a public spectacle beamed to TVs worldwide, the country’s CEO presides over the incineration — burning — of elephant and rhino tusks. The drama is the most meaningless head-fake this side of the Sahara. As the tusks are turned into ash by an inferno, the country goes into a tizzy. Tree-huggers and animal lovers wipe away tears of child-like compassion as they swear at evil poachers. African presidents — many of them corrupt undemocratic thugs — usually grace the made-for-TV orgy of destruction. Then everyone goes home, and the poaching resumes unabated.

Burning tusks may be good public relations, but a policy it isn’t. Nor is it even a strategy. It’s feel good self-indulgence by political leaders and those who claim to love the wildlife and our heritage. Let me take issue with Kenya’s leading conservationists. By giving the tusk-burning legitimacy, they give the global public a palliative — a lie that something’s been done. This is how the bourgeois “save” wildlife – by attending highbrow stunts. I ask them to stop this charade of nonsense and get to the heart of the matter. They — and we — know that burning tusks isn’t a sanction against the poachers. Why subject the poor tusks to an inferno as though they had committed a crime?

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Let’s ask the hard questions. What purpose — real, or imagined — does burning tusks serve, except polluting the atmosphere and burning a bunch of kerosene? Does it deter a poacher? Emphatically no. Does it make the police and rangers catch more poachers? Emphatically no. Does it make the poaching cartels which are linked to the deep state stop poaching? Emphatically no. Does it make the public want to rip the poachers to pieces? Emphatically no. Does it make the dead elephant come back to life? Emphatically no. But it tickles the fancy of the bourgeois conservationists. It certainly makes the upper class kid in New York believe Africans are taking the fight to poachers.

Tusk-burning is one big fat lie. Let’s stop it. Instead, I propose a more viable path. First, the State should simply enforce the law against poaching. Catch the poachers — starting with the big fish — and punish them without pity. Make a public spectacle of them instead of the tusks. Let’s sentence poachers to maximum sentences and publicly shame them. If the law isn’t tough enough, let’s amend it and go after them hammer and tongs. I believe that criminal sanctions — instead of sanctimonious tusk burning jamborees — are the only effective deterrent. If the State knows the poaching cartels — and it should — why doesn’t it go after them? Let the State call in international anti-poaching police if it’s failed.

Second, let’s build an anti-poaching museum to stigmatise poaching and create a memory bank for our wonderful wildlife. Instead of burning tusks, let’s use them to do art for the anti-poaching museum. The museum should be a national monument that must be constructed in such a way as to become an international tourist attraction. It should be an educational complex that teaches visitors the value of wildlife and our heritage. In it, we should have walking tours, shows, lessons, and the most magnificent displays of our wildlife. Let’s think outside the box. Let’s preserve some of the tusks there to remind everyone of their existence. Burning the tusks destroys evidence of criminality and the memory of the evil done by the poachers.

Third, the museum can serve several other purposes. Every Kenyan should be encouraged to visit it and contribute at least a shilling to the museum. Every primary and high school kid in Kenya should be required to visit the museum. This is one way to teach our young people the value of our heritage. School tours must be required. Seeing disjointed tusks without the elephants should be an object lesson. Those international folks who “love” our wildlife should contribute towards the construction of the museum and market it abroad as a destination for the cause. Let them put their money where their mouths are. Our wildlife belongs to the world, not just to Kenya.

Fourth, and finally, those convicted of the destruction of our wildlife — poaching, buying, selling, and the whole gamut of illicit activity — must be sentenced to serve their time at the anti-poaching museum. At the museum, they can work according to their skill — as cleaners, guards, lecturers on anti-poaching and the value of wildlife, and so on. Let them repent their sins before the world at the anti-poaching museum. Methinks such a museum will be a concrete and lasting step in the fight against poaching. It will go beyond the aimless ritual of burning tusks without purpose. Let’s be thoughtful, not dramatic.

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