NAIROBI — Kenya's president set fire to thousands of elephant tusks and rhino horns on Saturday, destroying a stockpile that would have been worth a fortune to smugglers and sending a message that trade in the animal parts must be stopped.
Plumes of smoke rose as the flames took hold of tusks piled up in a game reserve on the edge of the capital Nairobi, destroying 105 tons of ivory from about 8,000 animals, the biggest ever incineration of its kind.
President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed those who argued Kenya, which staged its first such burning in 1989, should instead have sold the ivory and the tonne of rhino horn, which by some estimates would have an illegal market value of $150 million.
"Kenya is making a statement that for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants," he told dignitaries before setting light to the first of almost a dozen pyres.
Kenya is seeking a total world ban on ivory sales when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meets in South Africa later this year as poaching poses an increasing risk to the species.
CITES banned commercial trade in African elephant ivory in 1989, but since then has permitted one-off sales.
Kenyatta's call for an ivory trade ban was backed by Ali Bongo, president of Gabon, home to the forest elephant.
"To all the poachers, to all the buyers, to all the traders, your days are numbered," Bongo said at the ceremony.
French Environment Minister Segolene Royal announced in Nairobi she was would introduce "a ban on any kind of ivory trade in France" after banning export certificates for ivory last year. She said she would encourage other European states to follow. "We need to kill the trade," she said.
Conservationists say the original CITES ban, and Kenya's 1989 burning, helped reduce demand and relieve a crisis for the elephant population but that one-off legal sales have revived the market.