Ivory to ashes, tusks to dust.... Nearly 5,000 kilograms of elephant tusks and ivory carvings went up in flames on Wednesday in the west African nation of Gabon, sending a powerful message to the international community that poaching and wildlife crime will no longer be tolerated in that country.

"Gabon has a policy of zero tolerance for wildlife crime and we are putting in place the institutions and laws to ensure this policy is enforced," President Ali Bongo said in a prepared release. In April 2011 Bongo established an antipoaching military force to protect the country's wildlife. Earlier this month Gabon and nine other central Africa governments signed a regional plan to strengthen law enforcement and combat poaching of elephants and other wildlife species.

Elephant poaching for their valuable ivory tusks reached an all-time high in 2011 and shows no signs of slowing down. The international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, but ivory remains popular in China, Japan and even the U.S. According to various reports, ivory can fetch $2,000 per kilogram on the black market or up to $50,000 for an entire tusk. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and TRAFFIC International, the wildlife trade monitoring network, estimate that between 5,000 and 12,000 elephants are poached in Africa every year for their ivory.

The burn included every tusk and piece of ivory that Gabon had confiscated from poachers and smugglers as well as the tusks of a few animals that had died of natural causes. Gabon's ivory stockpiles were audited in March and April by the country's parks and wildlife agencies, WWF and TRAFFIC. They counted an amazing 4,825 kilograms of confiscated ivory, which the organizations estimate came from approximately 850 elephants. Included were 1,293 pieces of rough ivory mainly (mostly whole tusks) as well as 17,730 pieces of worked ivory.

Richard Carroll, head of WWF's Africa Program, was in Gabon to witness the event and told me the burn was "like a huge funeral pyre" overlooking the capital city of Libreville. The ivory tusks were stacked more than four and a half meters high and were surrounded by the thousands of smaller carvings. "The flames started gradually as they burned the wood below, then they rose up through the tusks," Carroll reports. Armed guards from Gabon's National Parks Agency surrounded the site to ensure that ivory remained secure during the daylong burn.

"This is a very symbolic and inspirational activity," Carroll says. "It shows leadership. It is a symbol that wildlife crime is being taken very seriously here." Smaller burns of surplus or confiscated ivory have occurred in Africa—for example, Kenya burned 335 tusks a year ago—but this is the first time that a country has publicly destroyed its entire stockpile.

Kenya and several other African nations hold similar large collections of ivory, which can include confiscated ivory as well as tusks from animals that died of natural causes or during culls that are used to prevent overpopulation (no Central African countries cull their elephants). These poorly secured stockpiles often become tempting targets for criminals. Earlier this month thieves broke into a strong room at the Zambia Wildlife Authority and took off with 3,000 kilograms of ivory valued at nearly $400,000. Two men, both game scouts, have since been arrested for the crime.

"If not managed properly, ivory stockpiles in the hands of government suddenly 'get legs' and move into illegal trade," Tom Milliken, manager of TRAFFIC's Elephant Trade Information System, said in a prepared statement. "Gabon's actions effectively keep the ivory out of the way of temptation."

Gabon had reason to worry. The audit (available in a French pdf) found that ivory recovered from poachers was scattered in 22 locations across the country. Only 62 percent of the raw ivory had been marked using TRAFFIC's code identification system, and no central database exists to track it all. Most of it was safely stored in facilities that the auditors found to be secure, but a few days after the audit was completed, thieves stole a small stockpile in the provincial capital Oyem. No one has yet been arrested for that crime.

Milliken discusses the liability of ivory stockpiles and the importance of the Gabon bonfire here:

Gabon is home to the largest number of the animals in central Africa: 23,000 African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), about half of that species' total population. The Democratic Republic of the Congo used to hold the largest number of forest elephants, but rampant poaching over the past few years has brought the population there down below 8,000 animals. Forest elephants are smaller and rarer than African savanna elephants (Loxodonta Africana) and boast straighter tusks. Last year the Wildlife Conservation Society warned that forest elephants are rapidly running out of safe habitat, and new roads have created new entranceways that poachers can take into the forests.

Lee White, executive secretary of Gabon's National Parks Agency, called elephant poaching an international problem. "Gabon is coming under siege by criminal gangs of hunters and crime syndicates that smuggle ivory to Asia," he said. "Unless there is a strong international reaction to stop wildlife crime, and ivory smuggling in particular, the forests of Gabon will no longer vibrate with the rumble of the forest elephant."

Photo 1: Confiscated ivory tusks on the bonfire on June 27 © James Morgan. Used with permission

Photo 2: Poached ivory elephant tusks and ivory products confiscated by antipoaching patrols, Gabon, Africa. © WWF–Canon/Bas Huijbregts. Used with permission