SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a debate among conservationists about how to save elephants. The government in Kenya believes that destroying ivory stocks can shame buyers whose demand for ivory carvings drives poachers to hunt wildlife. So today Kenya is burning the tusks of nearly 7,000 elephants. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, today's display just amplifies the question, to burn or not burn?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In the not burn camp is Mike Norton-Griffiths. He's a long-term Kenyan resident who researches the economics of conservation. I met him at a panel in Nairobi where he argued that ivory burns are just for show.
MIKE NORTON-GRIFFITHS: So I have the horrible feeling that Kenya is going into this with no clear idea if it's going to have an influence on anyone except the world press.
WARNER: The president of Botswana is boycotting Kenya's burn as, quote, "sending the wrong message." Botswana has more elephants than Kenya and has been more successful at conserving them. But beyond the arguments over the symbolism of this burn is a deeper question. What happens when you burn this much ivory all at once - 105 tons of ivory collected at Kenya's parks or confiscated at its ports. Norton-Griffiths says that's about 5 percent of all the ivory in the world that not currently on an elephant.
NORTON-GRIFFITHS: Now, in a sort of commodity market like ivory or any commodity market, that is a major perturbation to reduce stock levels by 5 percent. Look what happened when Iraq went offline with its oil. That's - that was 5 percent of the market. Oil prices shot through the roof.
WARNER: Raising the price of ivory could encourage more poachers to get into the trade and hunt more elephants. Now, Paula Kahumbu is in the pro-burn camp. She's the Kenyan CEO of WildlifeDirect. She says that keeping this ivory in Kenya's vaults is a far more dangerous temptation to ivory traders.
PAULA KAHUMBU: I mean, think about it. If you're a dealer and you need a ton of ivory, where is the hugest place to go? It's not to go hunting them. That's actually quite risky to go hunting animals. Actually, if you can raid a stockpile by bribing the guy who has the key, that is going to be the fastest way that you can get your ivory.
WARNER: Kahumbu's group has documented how ivory tusks go missing from African stockpiles or courtrooms because of corruption.
KAHUMBU: It goes from the courtroom exhibit room back into the market. And we discovered this because the same tusks were being seized in different places - exactly the same tusks. So we demanded two things. One was an ivory stock take and the second was the destruction of the ivory so that we wouldn't have that risk happening again.
WARNER: Of course, you don't have to burn ivory to destroy it. You can crush it, as New York did last year in Times Square. But burning it in these ceremonies that are solemn as cremation sends an extra message, like splashing red paint on a fur coat. It puts death in your face. The question is will that shame message influence buyers in today's biggest ivory market, which is in China.
HONGXIANG HUANG: Does that work that if you want to change them you shame them?
HUANG: No. With Chinese, that's some strategy that I would strongly advise not to use.
WARNER: Hongxiang Huang is the CEO of China House. It's a foundation in Nairobi to help Chinese in Africa integrate. He says that finger-wagging only politicizes the issue and it plays into the fears of Chinese that they're being undermined by Western NGOs and governments. But Huang says that most of the audience in China who happened to watch this burn on their TV screens probably won't see it as the shame message that it's intended to be.
HUANG: Oh, I think the burn will just be perceived as that more and more government are trying to phase this out. So it's something that is fading away.
WARNER: And one thing he says that Chinese people don't want to be is behind the times. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.