A Funeral Of Giants
On a solemn day in Kenya, Vivek Menon watches tonnes of ivory go up in flames and pays touching tribute to the giants that were felled for the misplaced value of their tusks.
Photo: Vivek Menon/WTI.
The mother of all elephant funerals was about to begin. Eight thousand and more of the largest living beings on land had died for these yellowing teeth. They lay in 11 carefully constructed pyres, 105 tonnes of ivory, on soggy forest ground. On land where elephants have walked for millennia, branding their near circular pads onto the wet earth. Through rainforests and warm savannahs, under dappled acacias and scraggly mesquite, eating, walking, resting, talking and then walking again.
But that was then. Today, the eight thousand were reduced to 11 piles of teeth. The only parts left of bodies that were shot at by poachers, felled by disease or claimed by senescence. The only parts that man, an agent of so many of their deaths, had deemed valuable enough to hoard in government cellars.
Dwarfed by the size of the ivory stockpile, but not by the conservation plight that its biological owners face, was more than a tonne of rhino horn in a smaller receptacle; the nasal appendages of a primeval species that seems to be on its last legs on the African continent.
And now, in one defiant political act, in a single conservation statement that would grab media bandwidth across the world, the Kenyan government, led by its President, would light the funeral pyres. The message was clear: the ivory had no value if not on a live elephant. It was not priceless but valueless; the only value that it had, had gone with the lives that had departed.
It was not as if this statement was a mere ethical one pronounced to buttress an ideological argument. This burning was the latest, but perhaps not the last, of a series of attempts by Kenya and a few other African nations to save the endangered rhino and elephant from disappearing once and for all from the continent. It was a last-ditch attempt to send a message to the hoarders and stockpilers of ivory and rhino horn, both in the Far East of Asia and on the African continent itself, that these commodities were worthless. What was being priced at millions of dollars in the illegal trade would, within a few days of the ceremonial lighting of the pyres by President Uhuru Kenyatta, his wife Mama Kenyatta and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, be reduced to ash and charred scrap.
But now, as they lay, if the teeth were to be placed root to tip in a single line they would stretch from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa. Or so Richard Leakey, Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) thundered in his talk to the solemn band of conservationists who had assembled at the funeral. And this, he said, was only five per cent of what all of Africa held in its coffers. Were the rest of the African leaders to follow suit, the remains of the carnage would stretch from Kenya to the moon! It was a great oratory on the enormity of the footprint that man has stomped on this planet, and a sobering reminder that even the largest being on land had been laid waste on such a gargantuan scale.
THE FLAME THAT STILL BURNS
A few days earlier, seeking an eye in the tropical storm that enveloped Nairobi, I had joined my friend Azzedine Downes, President of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and several Kenyan conservationists in assembling the pyres. The inclement skies reflected the mood of those assembled. The frames for the pyres had been built and a coat of red paint was being applied. A core of tusks had already been placed by the guards. We sloshed our way to a row of shipping containers holding the cargo. As we approached, a Kenyan guard opened one of the shutters and a rumble was heard almost at once.
Was it from the skies, a portent of rain, or was it from the elephants themselves, communicating infrasonically in their death? In a moment it became clear. With a thunderous crash, a wall of ivory came rolling at us from the bowels of the container. As guards scattered, an assortment of teeth fell onto the soggy earth, each marked carefully in red with reference number and weight. Azzedine picked up a tusk and hefted it onto his shoulders, and I followed suit. Komandos formavimas https://www.primumesse.lt/komandos-formavimas-ir-mokymas/ We walked back in silence to the pyres and laid them ceremonially onto the growing mounds. And then we walked back again for more. Azzedine was more ambitious than me. He took up a 35 kilo tusk and, groaning under its weight, staggered back to the pyre. I was more circumspect; the largest one I took up was 20 kilos. I lifted fewer than him as well, as each time I spent a few moments breathing a prayer for the souls that had borne these magnificent ornaments. It was a send-off for my companions of over three decades; for the elephants that I loved more than so many of my own kith and kin.
President Kenyatta led the lighting. At first there was smoke. Dark billowing clouds of grief that rent the grey skies. Two Sacred Ibis circled the smoke, whether looking for insects that flew upwards from the flames or in benediction to the proceedings, I could not say. Then a crackling sound announced that the fire had taken birth. The heads of state and other dignitaries moved away. The KWS team, orchestrated by a blonde giant from the movie industry who was used to lighting theatrical fires, opened the valves for petroleum to flow into the pyres under pressure through a maze of pre-designed pipes. There was a whoosh as the fire guzzled the pressurised fuel, echoed by the gasps of a thousand onlookers.
The rhino horns, compacted masses of hair that they are, burned first, with leaping flames and a singeing smell. The ivory was more reticent. It would char first, I knew, and then split, but the cores would remain intact until very high temperatures were reached and retained for a long period. The VIPs moved away to the sounds of a military band. Others like us stayed on for an hour more, talking to fellow conservationists, photographing the historic burn and taking in lungfuls of smoke.
As the last guest left the scene at Nairobi National Park, a pride of lions alerted by the smoke and smell moved in towards the pyres. There were only a couple of onlookers left, among them the redoubtable Winnie Kiru who had masterminded the burn forthe KWS. “It was as if they knew what was happening and came to check it out for themselves”, she told me the next day. She smelt of smoke and soot. But then so did all of us on that day and for many days thereafter. For we had left part of our souls amidst the ivory, and long after the last tusk was consumed a dark stain remained in our hearts, an ever-burning memory of that day.
Author: Vivek Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.