WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On July 18, 1989, the Kenyan government built a 12-ton pyre of elephant tusks valued at $3 million, and set it ablaze. The point of the bonfire was to demonstrate Kenya's commitment to ''saving'' the African elephant from ''imminent extinction'' by supporting a ban to end the trade in ivory. Kenya's elephant population had dwindled from 65,000 in 1979 to 19,000 when the match was struck.
Although elephant hunting in Kenya had been illegal for over a decade, officials believed that an international trade ban would halt Kenya's poaching epidemic. They were wrong. Despite a worldwide moratorium on the ivory trade imposed in October of 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), Kenya has lost an additional 3,000 elephants.
With only 16,000 elephants left in Kenya, one might think that Kenyan conservation authorities would reconsider their support of the ivory ban.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. As Richard Leakey, Kenya's director of wildlife conservation and management, stated, ''We've been active in promoting a concern for elephants and popularizing the emotional side of conservation. . . . Kenya would get very bad press if we were to take a position diametrically opposed to our present stance.''
Dr. Leakey himself in 1989 set fire to 300 kilograms of black rhino horn. At $10,000 a kilo (2.2 pounds), that's another $3 million up in smoke. Before the pyrotechnics began, he boasted that ''Kenya, a poor country, has already made a $3 million contribution to the PR effort, and we plan to give another $3 million.''
Clearly, Dr. Leakey is better at political grandstanding than economic analysis. CITES banned trade in black rhino horn in 1976 when the rhinos numbered 50,000. Today, only about 3,500 exist, mostly in Zimbabwe and South Africa where hunters pay for the privilege to cull them.
Several countries in southern Africa have managed their wildlife stocks better than Kenya -- so much better that elephant overpopulation has become a major problem. In Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 68,000 elephants, but suf- ficient habitat for only 43,000. Botswana and South Africa suffer from a similar ++ problem. Species overpopulation leads first to habitat destruction, followed by mass starvation and adverse impacts on other species.
Nevertheless, on March 10 CITES rebuffed petitions from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Malawi to relax the ban on trade in elephant by-products such as ivory, hide and meat. These countries have healthy herds, resulting from a policy they call ''conservation through utilization.'' The policy gives rural Africans economic incentives to conserve and protect elephants. As burgeoning populations of Africans compete with elephants for limited resources, some governments have realized that people need meaningful reasons not to plow land and shoot marauding elephants.
John Turner, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and leader of the U.S. delegation to CITES, talked a good game. He lamented that the world had lost an opportunity to ''provide honest encouragement for stewardship of wildlife resources by sustained and wise use for the lasting benefit'' of Africans themselves. He chastised ''certain protectionist groups, media interests and even U.S. legislators [for choosing to promote] half-truths, misconceptions and distortions of reality in this emotionally charged issue.''
But then the U.S. delegation voted against its rhetoric, 'u announcing its opposition to the southern African countries' petition, and to a proposal by Zimbabwe to lift the ban on trading rhinoceros horn, a step that might have put illegal traders out of business. ''This means,'' said Martin Holdgate, the presiding officer of CITES, that ''we have only our existing rules to protect the rhino . . . and they have clearly failed to stop the decline of this animal.''
CITES has three levels of species protection, depending on the perceived severity of the situation. ''Appendix I'' is supposed to cover species actually threatened with extinction. It applies to elephants, although there were an estimated 609,000 elephants throughout Africa in 1989, almost half of which constituted stable or increasing populations.
The CITES ivory ban has failed. Where Africans have a financial stake in protecting wildlife, elephant populations are increasing at a natural rate of 5 percent annually. Where there are no such incentives, as in Kenya, elephant numbers have declined precipitously. In other words, some countries are able to protect the goose that lays golden eggs, but only if they are allowed to keep the gold. The CITES policy of attacking the profit in elephant products, carried to its logical conclusion, will achieve success only when there are no elephants left.
Indeed, one of Dr. Leakey's researchers confessed: ''I would rather see no elephants than elephants being culled. . . . It's morally unjustified to kill elephants.''
Dr. Leakey has another idea: ''I personally believe that the introduction of some form of contraception is one way that we should explore.'' Saving elephants by preventing their birth? Clearly, the economic and ecological situation in Africa has little to do with the policies ostensibly enacted on behalf of the elephant. Until it does, Africans and elephants will suffer from the vagaries of politics.
Ike C. Sugg is a fellow in environmental studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.