The air is acrid and the flames are scorching the grass around this huge bonfire. I am in Gabon, central Africa, watching tonnes of elephant ivory go up in smoke. There are 1,293 elephant tusks and a huge amount of confiscated ivory that has been carved into a myriad of products fuelling the fire. Everything here has been independently audited by a team of WWF/TRAFFIC staff and tracked from the storage depots to the burn site.
It's sobering to think that the estimated 850 elephants killed to produce this pile are a mere fraction of the population that has been lost in the last 10 years. 2011 marked the worst year for African elephant ivory seizures and most of that will have come from central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been amongst the worst hit. Its population of elephants is down from an estimated 200,000 to, at best, 10,000 in the last 10 years.
Even here in Gabon, with its network of protected areas and a president committed to nature conservation and the development of a green economy, more than 10,000 elephants have been poached from the north of the country in the last five years. The poachers are getting more aggressive as well, with field rangers being killed trying to protect the elephants.
Gabon is aware of the threats. With the population of forest elephants in DRC now less than 5% of what it was ten years ago, the poachers are looking to those countries with relatively intact populations like Gabon. Recent estimates show that Gabon has 13 per cent of the forest cover in central Africa but more than 50% of the elephant population. For the ivory poachers, it is the proverbial ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.
Except that Gabon will not tolerate this. Today, the President of Gabon himself has chosen to ignite the ivory stockpile. The tusks will have been obtained through criminal activities and any sale of this stockpile would encourage additional poaching. Under the initiative of its president and the national parks service and forestry ministry, Gabon is sending out the strongest possible signal to the poachers and ivory trade: you have no place here.
Gabon has increased the staffing of its national parks service more than sixfold. It is in the process of putting together a mobile, armed response unit and it is investing in the parks infrastructure. It is serious about protecting its natural capital. It will be putting in place a new law on sustainable development to achieve this.
I have worked for WWF for more than 10 years and we are about to embark on our Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign to highlight not just the desperate plight of the elephants of central Africa, but also the wider issue of wildlife crime. This crime encompasses a whole raft of criminality which undermines the rule of law, thrives on inequality and corruption and at its worst fuels civil wars. Gabon is taking action - what will other countries do?