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Kenya To Host Largest Ivory Burn To Combat Elephant Poaching


This weekend, Kenya is expected to make a big statement against poaching. They'll be torching tusks of 6,700 elephants. Unfortunately though, it's the rainy season there. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, that means big challenges for the guy meant to make the big burn, burn.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In his gleaming white safari suit and gumboots, Robin Hollister wades through mud in Nairobi's National Park. He stares out in the distance, past the truckload of fuel that's now lodged in the mud, past the mobile generator that's stuck next to it. He's looking for a guy named Singh who was supposed to deliver some extra pipes about an hour ago.

ROBIN HOLLISTER: That's why I keep looking over my shoulder. Where is Mr. Singh?

WARNER: What Hollister doesn't yet know is Mr. Singh is also stuck in notorious Nairobi traffic. Eventually an ambulance will be called to bring an extra hose. All of this because on April 30, this spot will host global celebrities and dignitaries to watch 106 tons of elephant ivory and rhino horn sent up in flames.

HOLLISTER: I mean, you can destroy ivory by bringing in a stone crusher. Burning is more dramatic.

WARNER: Well, it's like burning money.

HOLLISTER: Yeah. And the whole message behind this is, whatever the value is, we don't accept that value.

WARNER: The black market value is more than $300 million. Some of this contraband came from Kenya's parks, some confiscated at the borders. The group Stop Ivory helped organize the burn.

HOLLISTER: Come over here.

WARNER: Hollister leads me to an air compressor and fuel pump.

HOLLISTER: So we're just pumping the fuel at high pressure down these pipes. And each one goes to its own tower.

WARNER: Ten separate towers of ivory will be lit by 10 African heads of state, each from a country where elephants are poached. No one has attempted a burn this big before, and ivory is not flammable. So it has to be incinerated.

HOLLISTER: The fact that we don't know is how long it will take to burn. I may not have enough fuel.

WARNER: All he has is 5,000 gallons of donated kerosene and diesel. Tractors flatten the earth, making little roads for the dignitaries, as a nearby buffalo stops to watch and a warthog trots by. We're in open savanna in a part of the vast Nairobi National Park, just near the site of the first ivory burn in 1989. That burn idea was cooked up by the conservationist Richard Leakey, who called in Hollister for his experience doing film set special effects.

HOLLISTER: That time, it was actually very easy. There was plenty of time to do it. It wasn't during the rainy season. You know, everything worked.

WARNER: It worked so well as a symbol that there've been dozens of burns in various countries since then. And some argue that big ivory burns don't have the shock value that they once did. So Kenya scheduled this biggest-ever burn around a continental summit, so other African presidents could join in. Among Hollister's tasks is an act of diplomacy to make sure that no ivory tower burns higher than the one the Kenyan president sets alight. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.