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 carved into a myriad of products fuelling this fire. Everything has been independently audited by a team of WWF and TRAFFIC staff, and it has been tracked from the storage depots to the burn site.
In fact what I am looking at here is the entire national stock of ivory in Gabon and they have chosen to burn it. In fact the President of Gabon himself has lit the fire. Why?
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 ten years. 2011 marked the worst year for the African elephant and most of that pressure was here in central Africa. DRC has been the worst hit. Its population of forest elephants is down from an estimated 200,000 to – at best – 10,000.
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 too. Every year more than twelve national park guards are being killed across central Africa. Just in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone, six guards were killed last Saturday.
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.
The last complete survey done back in 1988 showed that the population was around 60,000. More 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. Under the initiative of its president and national parks service and forestry ministry they are 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 ten years and we are about to embark on our Illegal Wildlife Trade campaign to highlight not just the desperate plight of the forest 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?