This week we are happy to be able to share a guest post from Kenya Wildlife Service honorary warden Colin Francombe.

Colin has been living in Northern Kenya for 50 years and is a devoted conservationist. His knowledge of the Samburu and their ecosystem is encyclopaedic and he is highly respected amongst the Samburu as an elder of the Kimaniki age group.

In 1989 Kenya took a stand by burning its ivory stockpiles, worth millions of dollars, in the hope that other countries would follow suit and prevent the African elephant from extinction. This statement strengthened the newly formed CITIES total ban on ivory trade, collapsing the market on ivory and allowing the Elephant to recuperate.

In 1997 the total ban was lifted to allow experimental trade with China and Japan, now blamed for fueling a market that has seen a population of 300,000 African Elephants dwindle to an approximate 20,000, facing local extinctions all over Africa.

Colin was instrumental in the kind of action that these Elephant now desperately need once again if they are to survive, and this week he shares with us his tale of the Ivory Bonfire:

One night in 1989 a Mum, a Dad and three excited children sat in front of their sitting room fire with a pile of firewood, a set of kitchen scales, and ten split and cracked pieces of ivory; products of wear and tear from the tusks of numerous herds of elephant.

These had broken off whilst feeding on the dry bushland of the Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch in northern Laikipia, on the edge of the giant scar which is Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and the home of the Francombe family.


With plenty of help I weighed and added 10 Kilos of firewood to the glowing embers of a ready lit fire. We then added the 10 pieces of broken ivory weighing 8 Kilos, and sat back to watch the effect of the flames on the ivory.

The white gold slowly turned a golden brown in the flames, and 3 hours and 3 sleeping children later, having added a further 30 Kilos of firewood, the ivory had progressed from golden brown to jet black and finally to a grey ash.

I had just established that in order for ivory to burn it requires 5 times it’s weight in firewood.

Earlier in the day I had been chatting to Richard Leakey, the newly appointed Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had been given the daunting task of restructuring the Department and halting the slaughter of wildlife, especially elephant which had reached astronomic proportions with thousands of the giant creatures being illegally killed each year.

Richard required a strong message with which to initiate a worldwide ban on the trade in ivory. He had mentioned that there was a stockpile of almost 20 Tons of ivory lying in the Government ivory store and we both agreed that if that stockpile could be burned in a highly publicised event it would carry a worldwide impact, and could set in motion a worldwide ban on the obnoxious trade with Kenya at the forefront of the initiative.

2. Colin’s portrait of the famous Kenyan elephant Ahmed in 1972

And so the evening test took place and on the following morning I told him it would be a “piece of cake” requiring 100 Tons of firewood to burn 20 Tons of ivory and with his agreement I could obtain the fuel from a non-indigenous Eucalyptus plantation in the Nairobi National Park.

Two days later he informed me that the burn date was set and asked if I could organise it. He stressed it must be good because the President and his cabinet would be guests of honour and the international press would be present.

Shortly before the date we selected a site in the Nairobi National Park and set to work on the trees with a power saw, cutting and splitting 100 tons of tree trunks into 8ft lengths and transporting them to the burn site. A 25ft pole was sunk into the ground to act as a pillar round which to stack the firewood in the form of a pyramid. Hay bales were soaked in kerosine and laid outwards to act as wicks. The wood was stacked over these to form the 25ft high pyramid and the pyre was now ready for a bonfire that should have made the Guinness Book of Records.


On the morning of the burn 20 tons of tusks were transported to the site in 3 trucks bristling with armed game rangers and we proceeded to stick them into the wood pile til it resembled a giant white hedgehog. We were donated 200 litres of Pattex contact glue by the Henkel Chemical Company and were initiated into the effects of glue sniffing when we mounted the pyramid and poured the sticky stuff over the tusks and outer layer of the wood.

By 2pm a marquee had been erected for the dignitaries, a large crowd had surrounded the site, a fire engine was on standby with its engines running and hoses manned and Kenya’s President Moi, along with his Ministers and other dignitaries, lit the protruding hay bale wicks using an 8ft long thin pole with a piece of kerosene-soaked sacking tied to the end.

4. Colin constructing the pyre

By good fortune there was no spontaneous combustion, and the services of the fire engine were not needed, as the flames rapidly engulfed the entire pyramid into a giant bonfire that was an awe inspiring sight to behold.

By the following morning the entire 120 ton pile of wood and ivory was a smouldering mound of grey ash, reminiscent of that obscure little test in our fireplace with 3 excited children looking on. And the spirits of over 1500 elephant whose bones still littered the African bush had been laid to rest.

5. the first ivory bonfire

It has been said by many that rather than burning such a valuable commodity it should have been sold with the proceeds used to protect the wildlife. However the fact remains that the ivory burn was the catalyst that set in motion the single most important event for the future of the elephant; the worldwide CITIES ban on the devastating ivory trade. The value of ivory dropped from one that exceeded the price of gold to just $5 per Kg, the lives of thousands of elephant were saved and the plight of this fabulous animal was put on hold and publicised worldwide.

We should all hope that CITIES will stop dithering over this issue and maintain the ivory ban ad infinitum in order to help save from extinction one of the most wonderful animals that ever roamed this planet…..



This article is a Samburu Trust collaboration. Please click here for more information.

This Chapter by Colin Francombe.

All Images and text ©2012 Samburu Trust. All rights reserved.

Image Credits

1: J. Francombe.
2: C. Francombe.
3,6: S. Kenyon.
4,5: R. Francombe.

  1. Jamie Kenyon

    24/07/2012 - 03:12

    Incredible Colin, starting a global ivory ban.

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