Bush Warriors Founder, Dori Gurwitz, Remembers the First Burning of Kenya’s Ivory Stockpiles 22 Years Ago


Bush Warriors Founder, Dori Gurwitz, was only a teenager when he personally witnessed Kenya’s first burning of ivory stockpiles 22 years ago–an experience he will never forget.

Photo credit: Tony Karumba

In 1989, African wildlife conservation saw a historical event–one that many people did not think would happen. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) lit aflame a massive ivory stockpile, underscoring their zero tolerance for the illegal ivory trade. No matter what political thoughts people and governments around the world had about Kenya at that time, one thing was very clear: the government was seriously committed to the preservation of its wildlife, at all costs. It got to a point that game wardens were given permission to kill, should they confront a poacher. This zero tolerance policy worked and, despite all of the challenges associated with being a new and developing nation, Kenya rose as a leader in wildlife conservation. The eco-tourism industry exploded!

Photo credit: Shazaad Kasmani

One of my favorite spots, while growing up in Kenya, was the Nairobi National Park. What is so amazing about this place is that–just steps away from city life, with the iconic Kenyatta Conference Center in the background–you were back in the wild, experiencing the African plains as they were when the first explorers stepped foot on African soil.

Photo Credit: www.letsgokenya.com

I was 19 when the first stockpile was burnt. The night before, my father–who had worked closely with the government at the time–called me to his office and asked me if I wanted to witness something to do with wildlife conservation that I would probably never witness again. I asked him if it was the stockpile burning, and he said yes. He had been given a special permit and we were going to be right there with President Moi.

I was very excited and could not sleep that night for a silly reason. I was trying to figure out how they were going to burn the ivory. If one was looking for ivory, it was always available around Nairobi–mostly in City Market or at the market next to the mosque. One of the ways the sellers proved to you that they were selling real ivory (and not bone), was by lighting a match and putting the flame over the ivory. I know its silly now, but for years I thought ivory could never burn because of these tricks. Lying in my bed, trying to figure out all sorts of pyrotechnic techniques, I fell a sleep while looking at the stars out my window.

Photo Credit: Fred Hoogervorst

The next day, I went with my father to his office in Wilson Airport, which is adjacent to Nairobi National Park. I couldn’t wait for what was about to happen, so I walked around the airport looking at the airplanes scattered around the tarmac to keep me occupied. Finally, the time came. I will never forget the scene when we got there. Excitement was in the air. This was a big day on many levels, both for conservation and politically, and people were happy.

Kenya’s first burning of ivory stockpile, 1989 (photo via baraza.wildlifedirect.org)

While my father visited with his friends, I stood by looking at the pile. It was so huge and so tall–about twice my height! Yet all that was running though my mind was how many elephants had died, which is truly what this massive ivory tower represented. I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never will again.

Photo credit: LIFE

The moment of truth came when President Moi grabbed the torch and ignited the fire. Deep, black smoke rose together with the flames, and the smell was bad–very bad. It made me want to throw up. It was a smell of death. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is the pungent odor of charred hair.

The remains of Kenya’s 1989 ivory burn (photo credit: John E. Newby/WWF)

A few days later, I came to see what was left. There was not much, only a black pile, about knee high. I stepped onto the pile and it crunched under my feet, like bits of charcoal. I stood on it to get a sense of what had just happened. It was not a good feeling to know that hundreds of slain elephants–some of the most majestic and intelligent creatures on our planet, each one at least ten times my size–were lying here under my feet. A thought went through my mind: if you could line up all of these precious animals, one after another, they could reach all the way to the center of the city. It was a crazy and surreal thought, one that has been engrained in my head ever since that moment. Now, every time I hear of dead elephants or rhinos, all I can imagine is this line and how long it would be now.

Photo credit: Alexander Zeverijn

I salute KWS for standing their ground and being an uncompromising force in global wildlife conservation. On behalf of Bush Warriors, I ask all other nations to follow their lead and burn ALL ivory and rhino horn stockpiles, to affirm that this destructive black market trade will not be tolerated. In doing this, we will standing in solidarity, telling the world: “Enough is enough.”

Asante sana,

Dori Gurwitz


Click here to read about Kenya’s second-ever burning of ivory stockpiles in public, which took place yesterday (20 July, 2011), and the demand from the conservation world for other countries to follow their actions.


An estimated 100 elephants are killed for their highly sought after ivory tusks every day, which amounts to as many as 36,500 per year. The demand for their ivory comes mainly from East and Southeast Asia, especially China. There, it is carved into a number of different things–jewelry, figurines, home and vehicle decor, and even cell phone cases–that are symbolic of one’s wealth and social status. Currently, African elephants are considered ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the same classification as cheetahs, African lions, and Asiatic black bears. Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the future of the world’s largest land mammals.



Tell the world what’s happening to the world’s largest land mammal, by participating in our ‘Walking on Wildlife‘ campaign! CLICK HERE TO LEARN HOW!

Walking on Wildlife in Semaphore, South Australia. Done by Jude Price and Kaye Brown. Watch these Bush Warriors in action in the video below!

Learn how to do your own ‘Walking on Wildlife’ HERE!


Related Stories:

Environmental Investigation Agency Calls for Destruction of All Black Market Ivory

Brisk Business: Controversial Issues Surrounding Illegal Ivory Trade Threaten African Elephants with Imminent Extinction

BREAKING NEWS: Poachers Slaughter At Least Five More Elephants in Chad, Bringing Toll to 20 in Past Week

Running Out of Time and Elephants: Liberia Emerges As Serious Victim of Illegal Ivory Trade, Where Will it End?

Live From the Congo: Elephant Ivory Project

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4 Responses to “Bush Warriors Founder, Dori Gurwitz, Remembers the First Burning of Kenya’s Ivory Stockpiles 22 Years Ago”

  1. Few months after my birth. This must be followed to eliminate the blak market.

  2. Melanie Cameron Says:

    I know President Moi had his failings as most do (Madiba – exception to that rule) but burning the ivory stockpiles was a massive deal – he could have easily gone the other way. Unfortunately, the demand is still there and that is why there was a need for another bonfire. I hope other countries follow suit. It’s a disgrace to the human race that this vile trade is allowed to continue unabated, but well done to the KWS for the policy and the message it hopefully sends, let’s hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

  3. I think Africa has to be careful as to who they trade with. As the gentlemen said in the footage that if you trade, you trigger poaching. I feel that the South African’s have been horribly midguided by their own government. My reasoning is that despite the ongoing poaching of Rhino, the government has not only awarded permits to trophy hunting on an endangered species but have exported live Rhino to China for the sole purpose of their body parts to be canabilised for medicinal purposes that has no cure for any disease what so ever. How can the effort to protect a species be so fragmented by the SA government? Why do they openly export trade with our wildlife to a country that could not care less about conservation or the well being of the species? Those Rhino’s need to be returned home, they do not belong to China and the SA government had no right to export them. If anything they should be cherishing and protecting on South African soil.
    There was a recent article on the SA troops been used to protect the Rhino in the Kruger National Park. The SA government will have to spend additional funds to secure the borders especially with Mozambique…an easy trade route for the black market.

  4. betty murphy Says:

    Dori……your narrative about the ivory stockpile you witnessed burn as a youngster touched me deeply……I am glad you have shared with with us because it makes it even more personal…..Thank you,Dori!!! BUSH WARRIORS RULES…For all the animals great and small…

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