Burning Ivory to Spread the Message – Hard Hitting New Videos Released

Joyce Tischler, founder and general counsel, Animal Legal Defense Fund

African elephants are running out of time. Homo sapiens, a species that by most accounts is overpopulating the planet, is brutally killing elephants at the rate of 96 per day. By some estimates, African elephants will be extinct in approximately one decade. Every elephant death is disturbing and the thought of
no more wild elephants is beyond comprehension. The inane reason we are killing them is to seize their tusks—ivory, a coveted product that is valued by humans more highly than live elephants. You may already know that. So, here’s some promising news:

On April 30, 2016, Kenya burned 105 tons of ivory, along with over one ton of rhino horns and the confiscated skins of thousands of other wild animals in a strong public statement of support and respect for its native


Photo by Tim Gorski

wildlife. This burning has been captured on video by Tim Gorski, a documentary filmmaker who is currently working on the elephant issue.

It’s eerie to watch these videos and realize that each pair of tusks belonged to someone (not something) who was highly intelligent and social, and who lived in an intricate society where they form lifelong familial bonds, cooperate to solve problems and teach their children the essential skills needed to survive in the wild. Elephants are one of the most extraordinary species ever to grace this planet; they deserve no less than to be allowed to live out their natural lives with their herds in their homelands.

Please take a look at one or more of the videos, and listen to the powerful words of those fighting on the ground to protect elephants:



And, when you’re done, please learn more about the issue; get involved. Stop the slaughter.

11 Responses

  1. The only problem here is that all the ivory burning in Kenya is stage managed propaganda. Mombasa. Kenya is the world transit hub of ivory smuggling via cargo container. Some of the elephant ivory is trafficked hundreds of km across several borders to get there. The government is complicit at the very highest levels. The police, politicians, customs officials, even a Kenyan first lady have all been linked directly to the ivory trade. 30,000 dead elephants every year. That the government puts on a spectacle and burns some ivory for gullible westerners to see is silly. The burning of damaged and second quality tusks may even been seen as a price support measure, much like the uSDA checkoff program, because it creates the market expectation of scarcity, thus keeping the prices artificially high. Joyce is a great historian of Animal Law but the piece above appears a bit naive in its praise of the Kenyan government as far as promising news goes.

  2. Thanks, John. I’ve been to Kenya and am aware of widespread corruption in that country– it’s front page news on a daily basis. My intent was not so much to praise the government, as it was to sensitize a broader audience to this horrific loss of life. These videos help to do that. If we are to turn the tide on this crisis, we need to approach it from all angles.

  3. Absolute , global greed.

  4. Joyce, I have been to Africa as well. I respectfully and vehemently disagree with the widespread idea that the videos “sensitize a broader audience to this horrific loss of life. These videos help to do that”. The opposite is true. The ivory burning videos elicit a false affective response in their western audience that elephants are being saved and that the matter of elephant extinction may be dismissed from public consciousness as a result of a visual reference to perceived government action in Kenya and elsewhere. This is exactly the opposite of what should happen. As for all angles, you know that most angles are dead ends. This video is one.

    I have long admired your groundbreaking work but respectfully disagree with you here for the reasons stated.

  5. John, I hear your concern and your frustration and I share them. What I would love to hear from you, and don’t see in your posts as yet, is an indication of what you believe to be the better and more effective course(s) of action to respond to this problem. Please share that with all of us. Joyce

  6. No one has a politically viable solution or the problem would not exist. However, the idea of removing the issue from public consciousness via a media opportunity which belies the problem is surely a very bad angle indeed from which to address the poaching problem and I objected to the media shilling by the Kenyan government as phony and a great disservice to the animals. Likewise I am not voicing the “frustration” of which you write and claim to share. I ask that others not impute emotional assumptions. The use of media to shroud elephant poaching is an analytical problem and deflection of argument as emotional is a form of diversion which does not serve the Elephants.

    I note that you don’t offer a mechanism for stopping poaching, and I, in turn would love to read your views which I am sure go beyond learning more and getting involved.

    Since you asked, I have long advocated a worldwide ban on ivory possession and a new level of specific criminalization of participation in every step of the supply chain from poacher through bankers, lawyers, import and export agents, police, airlines, artisans, and consumers. The single most important way to attack the problem is to criminalize possession in China, Vietnam, the US and Thailand with long imprisonments periods and asset forfeiture legislation. Disallowing archival ivory sales and state sanctioned harvests will immediately cut the ability of middlemen to disguise and commingle the origin of legal ivory with poached. Do that and poaching demand will drop. Beyond that enforcement efforts on the ground and audits and asset seizures of intermediaries and transport facilitators — starting in Kenya where the ivory burning show was staged — would attack existing chokepoints of ivory transit.

    What I prefer but is more subject to political resistance is this plan: I prefer a shoot on sight policy for poachers as an emergency measure, in contrast to the views of Prof. Rosleen Duffy who does not, although we both support economic transformation to a conservation model. It is important to take human life, though many might object on various grounds, at every step along the supply chain to change public consciousness as to the permissibility of taking animal lives. Killing humans is seen as a flash point for many, but I argue that this sort of sacrifice is exactly what will change the status of elephants in the human mind from extractable commodities to ‘sacred’ or within the protection of law and to whom humans extend the possibility of justice. This must not be limited to black poachers but extended to Arab middlemen, Asian consumers, White bankers and lawyers and spotter pilots, so that the entire supply chain is leveled across racial and class lines as well a geographic ones. Only then can targeted criminalization serve as the basis for other initiatives in education, consciousness, economic transformation, resistance to globalization and anthropocentrism as law.

  7. Dear John,
    Thank you for asking. I advocate a permanent worldwide ban on all sale, purchase, possession, trade, and ownership of ivory. It is obvious that allowing legal trade in ivory has had disastrous results. While I agree with you that criminal laws, penalties and enforcement must be significantly strengthened, I would like to see more attention focused higher up on the supply chain, to wit, on the traffickers (the middlemen) on a worldwide basis, as well as seizure of tusks and prosecution before the tusks leave African ports.

    I disagree with your shoot on sight policy. I do not endorse or support violence or killing of living beings, human or nonhuman.

    I see several pressure points in the battle to keep elephants alive and safe: stronger criminal penalties and effective economic tactics on the ground where the elephants are, as well as in the countries where tusks are shipped to, and the countries where ivory is sold, and a global commitment to treating this activity as organized crime.

    Where you and I part ways is on the value of the videos that started this conversation. I believe that going to the consumers of ivory, i.e., those who purchase ivory products, has great value. Eliminate the demand and the suppliers will turn to some other way to make money. Videos that describe the problem, including the burning of ivory, will be used to reach consumers and significantly reduce (hopefully, eliminate) the demand for ivory. Many, if not most, consumers of ivory have never thought about where ivory comes from. They do not know that elephants are killed to obtain ivory. These videos serve as a powerful teaching tool, and can be used in conjunction with a campaign to make the purchase and possession of ivory shameful and embarrassing. Such educational efforts are already taking place in China and are aimed specifically at consumers and potential consumers of ivory products.

    Each of the videos I asked Blawg readers to view does not state or imply that the problem is solved. In fact, just the opposite message is delivered: the persons interviewed in these videos consistently state that we have much work to do, that the slaughter of elephants for their tusks is horrific, and that all sale of ivory must be banned. Even the Kenyan Wildlife Service officials state their support for a total ban on trade in ivory. Further, those videos were not created by the Kenyan government; they are the work product of a private documentary filmmaker who is developing a documentary aimed at eliminating the demand for ivory in China. Whatever the Kenyan government may or may not be trying to accomplish is irrelevant to the value of these videos as an educational and public awareness tool. I stand by my belief that these videos will help in the effort to protect elephants.

    Finally, it should go without saying, but it appears that I must inform you that long before I wrote articles about the history of animal law, I was and always will be an animal rights attorney. I believe that elephants should be accorded legal rights, and fully protected as persons.

    I’ve enjoyed our conversation and hope to be able to meet you in person at the ALDF and Center of Animal Law Studies Animal Law Conference, scheduled to be held in Manhattan on October 7-9.


  8. Dear Joyce,

    Thank you for your considered response. I might go point by point, but my purpose is to engage in a discussion of changing cultural beliefs concerning poaching, rather than to haggle over details. Consciousness raising, if one will, and the structural use of violence in favor of interspecies solidarity. So I shall confine myself to the essence of what the videos mean and how to respond.

    My main point is that the videos are fraudulent in that they convey a false and misleading impression that anything of significance is being done to stop poaching via governmental or other means. The war of attrition is being lost and the problem with the videos is that they allow the netizen consumer of information to dismiss elephant extinction from consciousness and cease what little efforts are being made to stop the supply chain, consumer demand and structural facilitation of elephant parts. In this sense, the videos are worse than useless — they harm elephants. Perhaps some version of this is our most common intellectual ground, although my opinion goes to what I contend the videos really mean as opposed to the material details of media production, which may or may not even be accurate, and are not my point.

    Where we may not disagree as much as you protest we do, concerns the use of violence. I argue there is an extinction level emergency, which creates an imperative, which must be acted upon. The use of violence, and by the way the state already maintains a monopoly on the use of violence so I am not actually suggesting anything more than a broader application of this power. For example, a ‘shoot on site’ policy already exists in parts of Africa and India and violence in support of animals is certainly allowed to very limited degrees under another rubric such as Sovereign rights or the Eighth Amendment or other names elsewhere. The heart of my argument is for an elevation of elephants in human consciousness to a status where they are ‘respected’ in the sense that no human would even want to harm an animal. Change the degree allowable under law to allow for greater and more immediate state use of violence. This form of enactivism can only come from a parity being achieved through sacrifice. I disagree with you, respectfully, that this can come from media videos and education and that state sanctioned killing can not be condoned to induce change. Violence in my usage is structural and immediate and state sanctioned, not a fetishized affective response such as we have seen with shrill protesters who would shy away from actual killing. It is a form of human sacrifice (I do not imply ritualistic killing here, but mean state ordered killing, which may not be so different) to change consciousness and put animal lives on a par with humans in the species, not one to one, sense. This is different than retribution, it is proactive and concerns the next elephant in the mind of the poacher, facilitator and consumer. I am ultimately not interested in violence per se, but see it as a necessary technology to intervene immediately and ultimately to change human consciousness and induce humans to respect other life. The views of those who advocate for animal personhood, rights, citizenship, grievablity – all great temporal passageways — for including animals within the polity have not taken their thoughts to their ultimate conclusion. It seems that for all the rhetoric, there is a cultural inhibition from asking for a change in the law to take human life on both a material and phenomenological level so that other species may also live. In brief, the violence I seek is ultimately a change of minds across human culture, and some physical bodies will be necessary, and should be facilitated by law, to make this point and achieve such transformation. We all want to get to the point where violence is unnecessary, but traversing that road can not itself be achieved without great violence.

    Finally, this is not even only about poaching. The elephant in the room, to invoke a grand guignol metaphor, is human sprawl and habitat degradation in Africa. If poachers today do not extirpate the elephants, the unborn are projected to do so. Are facilitating more human lives worth destroying even the remainder of a hybrid version of nature? This question must be confronted and in the vanguard should be Animal Lawyers and Posthuman theorists on a level which engages with both consciousness, valorization of rights, and uses of state violence.

    I got an alert that someone from Cotati searched for me yesterday on academia.edu so no doubt you are aware I live in Manhattan and therefore may appear at the ALC in October at your invitation. I would love to speak in person because I have long admired your early work in California in the 70s and believe you are ideally situated to write the next chapter in the history of Animal Law. I urge you consider the use of intra species violence as transitional a mechanism for interspecies solidarity. It has antecedents in law and I argue it is the transitional future. The theory and mechanism to do so needs to be outlined by a great historian of Animal Law, such as yourself.

    I would also like to thank David for facilitating an open expression of ideas on all topics in his forum.


  9. Very interesting dialog. I am not sure what you, John, mean by “second quality tusks.” I inspected many of those tusks (I am the guy that filmed the videos you feel are harmful and fraudulent). I assure you there is nothing fraudulent about my documentation of the event. Nothing was staged. The tusks were incinerated to ashes and can longer find their way into the market. The money used to store and guard them ($300,000 USD a year according to KWS) can now be designated for anti-poaching efforts – and hopefully it will. The stockpile can no longer be looted by enticed officials or rangers (one of the reasons KWS decided to destroy it all). Many were 1-2 meters long, 30+ kilos, and most in very good condition as far as ivory markets in Asia (where I live) are concerned. Yes, jungle tusks have a lower price tag attached as they are considered of lesser (softer) quality but the majority of the tusks destroyed were from Tsavo and other savanna elephants, not jungle elephants. The sheer number of small tusks from young elephants illustrates how bad the problem is – the poachers are running out of large tuskers to target and are taking out infants and young to salvage even the smallest ivory.

    I don’t believe the videos illustrate at all that there is a false sense of security now for elephants – that the war is anywhere near over. In fact, Raabia Hawa states that this is just beginning, KWS director Kitili states that people should be ashamed to own or buy ivory, journalist Huangxiang Hong validates the belief that much if not most of the ivory is destined for China, and Born Free’s Will Travers tells us that we need to find better solutions if we are ever to see an end to this crisis.

    I believe they all illustrate just how dire the situation is. Maybe you can point out exactly what moments in the videos you believe to be false, fraudulent, or damaging to the campaigns or the survival of elephants. I was there to document an event honestly and share it with the world. I believe I achieved that goal.

    Both Joyce and I agree with you that curbing demand is the only real solution – rangers in Africa are only buying time. No one here in Africa is delusional about that. WildAid (who sponsored the burn) is very active in education in China as is TRAFFIC and IFAW. I am working on an education program for national TV in China with National Geographic Channel China.

    The major campaigns must focus on the demand, not the poachers or the corruption in Africa. It is the demand that must be addressed. Shooting poachers on sight is in practice around Africa but when a poacher is shot and killed or arrested it simply means a new job opportunity for another young desperate African who sees value in ivory. Shooting on sight sends a message of course but it’s hardly a deterrence for desperate young Africans willing to take the risk. It is far from a solution.

    Tom Hill of Big Life Foundation pointed out in a interview I conducted with him just yesterday that a better message to the world would have been if President Xi or a Chinese philanthropist had purchased the ivory from KWS for 3 million USD and burned it himself. I don’t know if that was ever even put on the table but it obviously didn’t happen.

    Now that this burn event has reached mainland China in a big way on TV, print, and web it will be interesting to watch the market and value of ivory. Whether the value increases or decreases will be evident in the near future.


  10. Tim,

    Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed response.
    My main point is that the videos are fraudulent in that they convey a false and misleading impression that anything of significance is being done to stop poaching via governmental or other means. You write “I don’t believe the videos illustrate . . . there is a false sense of security now for elephants” I agree that that is not your intention or the literal representation, but my reading of your video is that it contains a message that the (collective) sovereign, meaning is acting upon this killing and therefore it is dismissible.

    My problem is with the spectacle of burning ivory, and its phenomenological shaping of a falsely constructed reality in the human mind concerning the poaching, not your videos per se. This idea, which I ask you to engage with, is way more important than going frame by frame as you suggest. I am bringing elements of law, philosophy, animal studies and ethology to this problem so it is not about the image in any particular frame of your video but about what the spectacle of burning ivory means as a whole. What I ask is: consider the ultimate meaning that imprints on human consciousness from watching burning ivory. I stated above in response to Joyce earlier, that this discussion, at least on my part is not about quibbling but concerns the creation of a nonexistent reality, that poaching is being addressed, by means of spectacle.

    As far as fraud goes, it is any conservation message in this type of public spectacle (here, burning ivory) that is fraudulent. I am not quibbling about details such as a dreary and depressing itemization of the presence or absence of material conditions (i.e. jungle ivory v savannah ivory, cracked tusks, DNA sampled tusks which may be traced if they reappear on the market after being seized, etc. – those elephants are gone and you and I can only advocate for the living). Instead I ask for an engagement with the message of the video. The image of the burning ivory as representing hope, government action to combat poaching, or the idea that this extinction level event is anything less than part of an ecological catastrophe (as opposed to a mere disaster) is fraudulent. In fact the reverse is true.

    Consider the affective response to your video. Look at it this way: you show the government burning of tusks. This is erasure of animal history and a subjective denial of both human and elephant memory and gievability. Elephants grieve with material remains of their ancestors and in the video their ability to do so is denied in terms of the signifiers of flame and erasure this represents. Likewise the audience dismisses the memory of the elephants through a consuming of the same ritual. The theory is that the trace which remains from such erasure is a false implication that the sovereign is offering protection to elephants. The viewer, having seen the spectacle through the lens of affect, may then dismiss it from consciousness, deny personal responsibility, and cease to demand protection for elephants. That is my problem with the video. Would it not be more honest to engage the audience with some of the issues discussed in this thread? Don’t get me wrong, the world needs a million more videos about poaching and destruction of habitat but not a misleading spectacle from a complicit government.

    I am all in favor of the education of which both you and Joyce wright, but sadly even at PhD levels many humans just do not understand the idea of inter species alterity and the idea that humans must not believe they are entitled to exterminate others. And so in the short term, killing or imposing the maximum penalties which may be politically negotiated for poachers, and hopefully every human in the supply chain, is a better solution.

    Do not misunderstand my advocacy of shoot on site policies. They are temporal and interventionist. The war will not be won by shooting poachers (although it might be won by shooting artisans and consumers if the Chinese and Vietnamese governments would allow same) but by associating elephant life with human life in human consciousness. “Shooting on sight sends a message of course but it’s hardly a deterrence for desperate young Africans willing to take the risk” you write but the message is not limited to black and Arab Africans but also to the Asian consumer and White intermediaries and everyone else that elephant life must be thought of as having parity with human life. I ask nothing less than elephants be made ‘unkillable’ in the human mind and the material reality of their species existence will continue.


  11. So I will post no more on this thread but hope to read comments in response from all concerned. Again, my issue is not with the video itself but the content of the spectacle of burning ivory and what is represents. In case I have not been clear, the government authorities in Kenya who staged that spectacle are the ones committing media fraud. I would like to see Tim’s video for NG China and would be interested in what is said about consumers and the refusal of the government to enact a possession ban especially as I have had dealings with the Chinese government censors.

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