By Tonny Onyulo, Jabeen Bhatti
NAIROBI — In a small workroom in this sprawling capital city, Caroline Kania hammers and carves to create necklaces and bracelets from animal bones. Across the city, Harriet Wilson cares for baby elephants orphaned by ivory poachers.
Both women are hopeful President Obama's announcement of new measures to suppress illegal ivory trade will turn the tide against the widespread practice that's driving the elephant population across the continent to the brink of extinction.
On his first official visit to Kenya on Saturday, Obama announced his administration will propose a federal rule banning the sale of almost all ivory across state lines. The U.S. is the second largest market for ivory after China.
"Seventy percent of the elephant’s tusk is embedded in the face," Wilson said. "The word for ivory in Chinese is tooth, so a lot of Chinese, 90% we think, believe that the elephant survives. If you pull out your tooth – you survive, if a deer loses its antlers – it survives, whereas an elephant doesn’t. Its whole face has to be hacked open to remove the tusks."
The situation across the continent is dire, Wilson said. More than 100,000 elephants are believed to have been killed for their tusks over the past two years, leaving a remaining population of just 450,000 across Africa.
"The African elephant will be extinct in the wild by 2025. They are being killed at a rate of 1 every 15 minutes in Africa as a whole," said Wilson, who works in fundraising and communications at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, which cares for orphaned elephants and rhinos and sends anti-poaching teams to wildlife parks.
Andrew Wetzler, director of wildlife conservation at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, said in order to save the elephant, it's crucial to stop the demand for ivory.
“If we are going to be serious about saving elephants, we need to close down the ivory market,” he said. "Elephants are in crisis. The incredible spike in demand and the value of ivory has sent poaching rates through the roof.”
In the U.S., only New York and New Jersey currently bar the sale of ivory, although other state legislatures are mulling a ban, Wilson said. A more widespread ban "would have a huge impact on the ivory trade and bring global recognition to the problem."
Patricia Sims, founder of World Elephant Day, a Canadian group that promotes awareness of elephants and threats to their species, said stopping buyers is crucial because poverty is a natural incentive in the ivory trade on the supply side.
“You kill the demand, the suppliers have no place to put the products anymore — if the consumer doesn’t buy it, there’s no point," she said.
"But when you get into Africa, poverty is just a really big issue," she added. "People are disengaged and disconnected from the value of their natural heritage and wildlife. Organized crime takes advantage of that. People don’t have an economic alternative and they just want to survive.”
Providing an alternative is exactly what Kania is trying to do, while earning a living at the same time. She is part of a group of artisans living in Kibera — Kenya's largest slum — and other parts of Nairobi who use animal bones found in the wild to make jewelry, marketing them an alternative to ivory.
“Making jewelry out of animal bones is a calling," she said. “It requires patience and enough skills, from sharpening the bones to boiling using hydrogen peroxide. But I love doing this work and the passion has remained in me.”
Kania said she attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit here co-hosted by Obama over the weekend and shared the idea with other African entrepreneurs. “They should use waste bones in their country to make a different kind of jewelry," she said. “The business is great for tourists who come to the country. They love this kind of jewelry.”
As tourists buy up the jewelry, some also head over to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust's elephant and rhino center, where the young pachyderms come out to greet visitors every day. The crowd stands in a circle, some touching the small creatures, others with tears in their eyes as the handlers explain how many are found, traumatized, frightened and grieving. That's because elephants really do have memories, and they mourn their dead, the handlers say.
Wilson said efforts must be stepped up to stop the situation and she applauds entrepreneurs like Kania for creating alternatives. "We are in favor of any practice that decreases the ivory trade," she said.