The Central African nation of Gabon on Wednesday burned all the elephant tusks and ivory ornaments it had in its stockpile -- an amount equivalent to 850 elephants -- so that smugglers, via corrupt government officials, won't get their hands on the black market commodities treasured in China and other parts of Asia.
"Gabon’s elephants are under siege because of an illegal international market," President Ali Bongo said. "I call on the international community to join us in this fight" by cracking down on smugglers and buyers. "If we do not reverse the tide, the African elephant is in serious trouble."
The international wildlife monitoring agency TRAFFIC is among those that fear skyrocketing prices for ivory will tempt more government officials across Africa to join the illegal trade.
"If not managed properly, ivory stockpiles in the hands of government suddenly 'get legs'," Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory trade expert, said in announcing the burn. "Zambia lost 3 tons of ivory from the government’s strong room just last week and Mozambique lost 1.1 tons in February."
"Gabon’s actions effectively keep the ivory out of the way of temptation," he said.
Kenya last year burned several tons of seized tusks and ivory as well, though that was not so much to deter temptation as it was to send a signal about the rampant illegal trade, where tusks can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound.
TRAFFIC's data showed record levels of tusk and ivory seizures last year.
Even before the spike in recent years, Africa's elephant population is estimated to have shrunk from 1.3 million in 1979 to 450,000 in 2007.
Worth some $10 million on the black market, nearly 11,000 pounds of ivory was burned on Wednesday -- including almost 1,300 pieces of rough ivory made from tusks and almost 18,000 pieces of worked ivory.
The international community in 2008 did try to ease the demand -- and the high prices that lure poachers -- by allowing Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell their stockpiles, but prices continued upward.
The same strategy by Gabon would also fail, the conservation group WWF told msnbc.com.
"Commercialization would encourage additional elephant poaching," said Lee Poston, a spokesman for the WWF's U.S. office. "Like illegal drugs, seized ivory has no legitimate monetary value."
Gabon is home to more than half of Africa's remaining forest elephants.
Lee White, head of Gabon's National Parks Agency, said Africa had lost nearly 80 percent of its forest elephant population in the last 20 years.
"Gabon is the last sanctuary," he said at Wednesday's ceremony, Reuters reported. "For example, there are now 20 times more elephants in Gabon than in the Democratic Republic of Congo, even if that country is 10 times larger than Gabon."
But even Gabon is threatened. Two elephant massacres were reported in the last year and Gabon has had to create an elite military unit to protect its wildlife.
In neighboring Cameroon, several hundred elephants were killed earlier this year for their ivory -- inside a national park.
China was allowed to purchase tusks and ivory from the authorized sale in 2008, but conservationists say buyers there have abused the system by forging documents.
"It's essential that, given China's insatiable appetite for ivory, its 'ivory trading nation' status be revoked," Will Travers, head of the Born Free Foundation, said in a statement.
The issue is expected to come up at a meeting next month among nations that are party to a treaty on the trade in wildlife.
The head of the treaty committee testified before a U.S. Senate committee last month, urging the U.S. and other nations to crack down.
A report coming out shortly will reveal that "the levels of illegal killing exceed what can be sustained in all four African sub-regions in 2011, with elephant populations now in net decline," John Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Rhinos have also been slaughtered by smugglers after their horns, which are ground up to be used as a purported medicinal powder. The price for rhino horn has made it more valuable than gold.
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