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LIBREVILLE (Reuters) - Gabon on Wednesday burned its stockpile of ivory seized from poachers, a highly symbolic move against a surge in killings of elephants and rhinos across Africa to meet Asian market demand.
It became the first central African state - described by its national parks chief as the last elephant sanctuary on the continent - to publicly destroy its ivory, following a path blazed over two decades ago by the east African nation of Kenya.
"This gesture shows the government's commitment to work tirelessly in the fight against international ivory trafficking," Gabonese President Ali Bongo said after the government's stack of ivory was torched.
"It is also a strong signal, a warning to poachers, so that they should be aware that this illegal trade will no longer flourish in Gabon. From henceforth, there will be a zero tolerance for poaching," he said at a ceremony in the capital.
Over half the ivory stock, worth some 5 billion CFA francs ($9.5 million), had been seized from poachers and traffickers since 2010, with the rest in the three prior years. Wildlife groups said the ivory represented some 850 slain elephants.
The audited ivory that Gabon put to the torch weighed some 4,825 kg (10,600 pounds), encompassing tusks and almost 18,000 carved items, officials said.
The illegal slaughter of elephants and rhinos is on the rise, an unsavory aspect of Asia's scramble for African resources driven by the growing purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes.
Lee White, executive secretary of Gabon's national parks agency, said during the ceremony that Africa had lost nearly 80 percent of its forest elephant population in the last 20 years.
"Gabon is the last sanctuary for elephants in Africa. 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," White said.
In South Africa, over 250 rhinos have been killed so far this year alone to meet demand for the animal's horn, which is worth more than its weight in gold. More are being killed each week now than were being taken on an annual basis a decade ago.
A record number of big ivory seizures were made globally in 2011 and the trend looks set to continue in 2012 with elephant massacres taking place from Congo to Cameroon.
Conservation groups WWF and TRAFFIC, which monitors the global wildlife trade, said in a statement the tusks and carvings set ablaze in Gabon had been subjected to an independent audit to ensure none had been pilfered.
The independent audit of its stockpiles is significant after wildlife groups reported that Zambia lost 3 metric tons (3.3 tons) of ivory from government storage last week while Mozambique had 1.1 metric tons stolen in February.
"If not managed properly, ivory stockpiles in the hands of government suddenly ‘get legs' and move into illegal trade. Gabon's actions effectively keep the ivory out of the way of temptation," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory trade expert.
Trade in rhino horn is strictly prohibited while that for ivory is mostly illegal and heavily regulated.
Writing by Ed Stoddard and Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich