Ivory Bonfire Highlights Elephant Poaching Crisis in Africa

Gabon is among many Central African countries attempting to crack down on the ivory trade after a record-breaking number of elephants were slaughtered in 2011.

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Michael Nichols / National Geographic / Getty Images

President Ali Bongo set a pyre of ivory aflame on June 27 in a symbolic warning to poachers in Gabon: We will fight to protect our elephants. He publicly ignited a total of 4,825 kilograms (about 10,637 pounds) of ivory taken by poachers from the tusks of about 850 elephants. The public burning served a dual purpose, both demonstrating Gabon’s zero-tolerance policy for wildlife crime, and curtailing the temptation to sell the government-seized stockpile on the black market. Zambia lost about three tons from its government stock hold last week.

The African elephant population is in serious trouble. The international trade of ivory was banned under CITES, an international trade agreement to protect wildlife from exploitation, in 1989. According to a report issued under CITES published on June 21 of this year, 2011 saw a record number of illegal elephant killings. Investigators seized 24.3 tons of illegally harvested ivory this year taken from an estimated 2500 elephants, according to the report—twice the amount of ivory seized in 2010 and more than the U.N. has ever seized since it started keeping records in 1990.

And elephants’ futures look no brighter in 2012: Last February, a gang of heavily armed foreign poachers killed almost 450 elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park in Cameroon. Authorities believe the poachers are from in the Sudan and entered Cameroon through Chad. Prior to the attacks, only 600 elephants were living in the park. Rangers confiscated six firearms and 66 pounds of elephant meat in the anti-poaching operation.

(MORE: Hundreds of Elephants Slaughtered in Cameroon as Ivory Demand Skyrockets)

The poaching problems are worst in Central Africa, where criminals slaughter elephants at night, harvest the animals for their tusks, and then smuggle the ivory out of the continent. Much of the ivory makes its way through Cairo or Malaysia to Asia, where it is popular in China and Japan. The wildlife trade-monitoring network, Traffic, estimates ivory sales have doubled in China since 2004. The same Traffic report found that only one tenth of the shops they surveyed selling ivory in China had licenses to do so.

President Bongo’s bonfire in Gabon this past week emulates a July 2011 Kenyan bonfire. Activists in Kenya were galvanized last summer by the killing of a matriarch elephant names Khaija, who poachers slaughtered near Kenya’s Samburu National reserve. She was found with her tusks cut out and the radio collar she was wearing destroyed and buried in the sand. Khaija had been treated just two weeks earlier for a bullet wound from a different attack. With her death, Khaija left behind eight orphan elephants. That July, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki burned five tons of confiscated ivory. The ivory in Kenya had been selling on the black market for $1500 per kilo (about 2.2 pounds), according to Kibaki.

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But the Central African governments have committed to do more than just burn ivory. In response to these poaching incidents and the CITE report, which found that poor governance and weak law enforcement were the primary drivers of poaching and the ivory trade, ten member states of the Central African Forest Commission signed a groundbreaking regional plan to strengthen law enforcement and better combat poaching on June 6th of this year. The countries will work together to increase custom controls (ivory is often moved across state before making its way to Asia) and to prosecute more poachers in court.

For its part, the Chinese government is also attempting to control the sale of ivory in its borders. China conducted a major operation that resulted in the seizure of 2,879 pounds of ivory earlier this year. In another attempt to frustrate the ivory trade, a Chinese ad campaign features a number of the country’s celebrities, including Yao Ming, telling buyers to be wary of the bloodshed their ivory purchases are financing.

Though it sadly took the deaths of thousands of elephants to invigorate government officials to take action, they finally appear to be formulating a plan. The findings of CITE’s report will be discussed by the CITES standing committee in Geneva from July 23 to 27.

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