Washington — Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba set fire to five tons of illegally obtained ivory June 27 to send a message to poachers that Gabon will fight to protect its elephants.
The ivory burned at the public ceremony came from the tusks of about 850 illegally killed elephants.
Elephant poaching is the worst in a decade, and recorded ivory seizures are at their highest levels since 1989, according to a June 21 report from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The report notes that 2011 saw a record number of illegal elephant killings yielding twice the amount of ivory seized in 2010. Criminals slaughter elephants at night, cut the tusks off the animals, then smuggle the ivory out of the continent. In 1989, CITES banned the international trade in ivory.
That international treaty, to which the United States is one of the original signatories, aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES' Appendix I lists species threatened with extinction that are or might be affected by trade and bans trade in specimens of these species except in very unusual circumstances.
In April in Gabon's capital, Libreville, the U.S. embassies in Libreville and Bangui, Central African Republic, and the Gabonese government co-hosted a workshop for Central African countries on wildlife trafficking and dismantling the illegal trade in wildlife. The ministers of water and forests of Gabon and the Central African Republic reaffirmed their commitment to combat poaching and trafficking of wildlife and urged stronger law enforcement efforts, greater international cooperation and a regional approach in addressing the issues. The event was organized with funding from the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
Also at the meeting were representatives of the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. They were joined by organizations active in the region, including the Kenya Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Interpol, CITES and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and representatives from the governments of China, Vietnam and Thailand.
The June 27 burning sends a message that Gabon has a zero-tolerance approach to poaching and is not interested in the ivory trade but in stopping the massacre of elephants, said Carlos Drews, director of WWF's global species program, according to a press release from Gabon's government.
"If we fail to take action now, decades of conservation efforts will go up in smoke," added WWF's Richard Carroll.
U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Eric Benjaminson commended the leadership of the Gabonese government, in particular the president, the minister of water and forests, and the director of the Gabonese National Parks Service. Benjaminson said: "This action continues to show Gabon's energetic initiative on environmental issues generally and conservation specifically. We continue to work closely with Gabon on its judicial and defense force efforts to capture and bring to trial poachers of any nationality caught within Gabon's borders." Benjaminson also noted that Gabon just received Yale University's highest ranking among African nations for its environmental policies.
"Our actions are not only symbolic, we are protecting our economy," Ondimba said. He noted that "the development of tourism, which is increasingly important to Gabon, requires us to preserve our fauna and flora." Illegal ivory seized by Gabon's authorities has been stored in secured locations.
Ondimba urged the international community to "put pressure on countries that continue to trade ivory" so that "they understand that the current situation is dangerous for us, the country of origin."
With 175 member states, CITES remains one of the world's most powerful tools for biodiversity conservation through the regulation of trade in wild fauna and flora.
"Once demand disappears, so will supply," Ondimba said.