The landmark decision by Gabon to burn its national ivory stockpile was announced in Libreville in April during a meeting held to tackle the escalating problem of poaching and trafficking of protected and endangered species in the region.
As wildlife poaching reaches crisis point across Central Africa, Gabon is to make conservation history by destroying its entire ivory stockpile.
“The burning of a country’s entire ivory stockpile will be an historic conservation event in Africa, and a strong deterrent signal for all the actors in the illegal wildlife trade chain,” said Natasha Kofoworola Quist of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Central Africa.
Trade in illegal wildlife in Central Africa has reached new extremes with organised and heavily-armed gangs that are increasingly violent in their quest.
Gabon and six other countries in the region have responded by drawing up an action plan to increase national, regional and international co-operation following a three-day conference entitled Wildlife Trafficking and Dismantling Transnational Illicit Networks that was held in Libreville on April 3. Organise by Gabon’s Ministry of Water and Forests and National Parks Agency in partnership with the US government, the meeting’s aim was to understand better the dual problem of poaching and illegal wildlife trading and to enhance regional co-operation.
Some 150 experts and representatives from the Republic of Congo, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic were joined by organisations active in the region such as the Kenya Wildlife Service, WWF, Interpol and the Wildlife Conservation
Society (WCS). Several Asian NGOs were also present since Asia is a lucrative market for ivory and animal parts.
The result was a written resolution calling for united concrete action. Measures set out include the establishment of a regional law-enforcement network; the tightening of cross-border controls and the stamping out of corruption related to illegal wildlife trading since studies by the International Union for
Conservation of Nature have found corruption at the highest levels, with poachers being commissioned by government officials and high-level businessmen. The resolution also called for the rationalisation of anti-poaching legislation across the region – in Gabon the penalty for poaching is currently up to six months in prison and a fine of almost $20,000 (€15,000).
With endangered species having a high economic value, particularly in Asia, poachers are proving unflinching in their determination to kill. The Chinese government, however, has responded by clamping down and has introduced the death penalty for elephant poaching.
Safeguarding animals, and a nation
African countries have different approaches to managing today’s dangerous breed of poacher. In 2011, Gabon raised the status of the forest elephant to ‘Fully Protected’ and announced the creation of an elite military unit whose mission is to secure Gabon’s national parks and to protect wildlife. Kenya has introduced a shoot-to-kill policy for any illegal poacher who law enforcement personnel see carrying a gun.
“The problem of poaching goes a lot further than simply breaking laws concerning wildlife protection in different countries. It has become a question of national security,” said Gabriel Ntchango, Gabon’s new Minister of Water and Forests. “More than ever, countries need to address the issue, but not behind closed doors,” he added.
For its part, the United States was “ready to support” countries to better equip their national park guards, said Eric Benjaminson, US Ambassador to Gabon, at the meeting. The realisation that wildlife protection can help safeguard national security has led the US to partner with governments battling poachers in Asia and Latin America where it contributes to ecotourism projects and offers technical and financial support for law enforcement. In the Congo Basin area, US funding supports environmental initiatives such as the Central Africa Regional Programme for the Environment (CARPE) and is helping Gabon’s National Parks Agency with anti-poaching measures and environmental protection.
The lucrative ivory market is a major draw for poachers. According to WWF, between 5,000 and 12,000 elephants are killed each year for their valuable tusks. Gabon’s decision to burn its ivory stockpile is clear proof of its commitment to combat the problem. The move is also an acknowledgment that ivory from illegal sources has no recognised commercial value, and could leak onto the black market if not destroyed. An independent audit will first determine the quantity of existing tusks in Gabon and then help establish protocols for future ivory seizures.
“Gabon is demonstrating how domestic ivory supplies can be regulated, given the political will to do so,” said Stéphane Ringuet, director of the Central African branch of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC which is conducting the audit. “If Gabon’s lead is replicated region-wide, we could see real progress being made in tackling elephant poaching and putting the criminal syndicates behind it out of business.”