Photograph courtesy James Morgan, WWF

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A guard supervises the burning of more than ten thousand pounds of ivory in Libreville, Gabon.

Photograph courtesy James Morgan, WWF

Massive Pile of Elephant Ivory Burned in Gabon—A First

Burn comes amid "shocking" spike in African elephant poaching.

More than ten thousand pounds of elephant ivory went up in flames today in the central African country of Gabon, a fiery act intended to snuff out a recent spike in poaching.

The government-held stockpile represents roughly 850 elephants that must have been killed for their ivory, which is increasingly in demand in Asia for artistic pieces. (Related: "Elephant Pictures: Killed Female Highlights Poaching Rise.")

The cache—which included more than 1,200 tusks and 17,000 pieces of carved ivory confiscated since 1985—is valued at a million euros, according to the nonprofits WWF and TRAFFIC, which have worked with Gabon to audit its ivory stocks.

Gabon's president Ali Bongo ignited the ivory pyre in the capital city of Libreville, making Gabon the first central African country to publicly burn its ivory. (Read "Ivory Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)

The event took place "on a hill, looking over Libreville—it was a beautiful scene, a slight breeze and cloudy sky," Richard Carroll, head of WWF's Africa Program, said in a phone interview from Libreville.

"In the middle of this field was this huge pile of ivory tusks all stacked up on a pyre."

After the pile was lit, "the smoke and [fire] built up more and more, and the heat was rising off this ivory—it was just a very inspirational scene," Carroll said.

"It's sending up a torch or beacon to the rest of the world ... that there is no tolerance for wildlife crime, [and] they're taking it seriously in this country."

"Shocking" Rise in Elephant Killings

The ivory burn comes amid "crisis levels" of elephant poaching across Africa, particularly in the central regions, according to a June report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Elephant tusks—which are actually long incisor teeth—are attached to the animal's skull, which means a hunter has to kill the elephant to extract the ivory intact.

A 1989 CITES treaty banned trade in elephant ivory, but poaching continues to feed black market sales.

Scientists reported the highest recorded rate of illegal elephant killings in 2011, with tens of thousands of the large mammals lost that year to poachers, according to CITES.

In addition, although large tracts of elephant habitat remain in parts of central, eastern, and southern Africa, the populations are becoming increasingly fragmented, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which classifies the species as vulnerable to extinction.

Due to these and other threats, only between 472,000 to 690,000 African elephants likely roam the continent today—down from as many as three to five million in the 1930s and '40s, according to WWF.

Gabon is home to about 50,000 of the remaining mammals. (See elephant pictures.)

"The figures are absolutely shocking," said Iain Douglas Hamilton, founder of the conservation group Save the Elephants.

More Value on Live Elephants

As a warning against the ivory trade, "I think Gabon's example is very important—it's the right thing," added Douglas Hamilton, who has received funding for his work from the National Geographic Society. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)

"They're making a real statement [that] they're going to have nothing to do with corrupt, underhand dealings with ivory," he said. "We need to demonetize ivory—it's very important to take the value away."

Joyce Poole, co-founder of the conservation group ElephantVoices, agreed.

"Destroying ivory is a way of saying that elephant tusks should not be an asset unless they are on living elephants," Poole, also a National Geographic explorer, said by email.

"By burning its ivory stockpiles, Gabon is sending a powerful message that ivory on the market stimulates demand and fuels the killing of elephants," she said.

"I strongly support Gabon's decision, independent of the volume being burned."

By contrast, conservationist Brian John Huntley, a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, generally supports legalizing trade in ivory and rhino horn.

The horns of rhinoceroses are also taken from poached animals and smuggled to Asia, where the material is coveted for traditional medicine, according to National Geographic magazine. (Related: "Rhino Wars.")

Last year South Africa lost a record 448 rhinos to poaching, which is now "epidemic" in the country.

Making ivory and rhino horn sales legal again, at least in a limited way, might help "to implement real 'sustainable use' practices and bring the prices down, reducing the incentive to illegal trade," Huntley said by email.

"But here I would go along with the views of TRAFFIC, who are closer to the problem than the rest of us."

Combating Wildlife Trade a "Top-Tier" Issue

Beyond burning their ivory, Gabon is taking action in the field against poaching, WWF's Carroll noted.

According to a statement by President Bongo, "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."

For instance, Gabon has beefed up its wildlife enforcement overall, in part by adding a military branch of 250 people to its park service staff to conduct antipoaching operations in high-risk areas, Carroll said.

The country has also committed to an ivory-stock management program to continually audit and destroy any ivory confiscated throughout Gabon.

What's more, ElephantVoices' Poole noted, Gabon is already a member of the informal African Elephant Coalition, a group of African countries where elephants roam that oppose the ivory trade.

As for whether Gabon's ivory burn will prompt nearby countries to follow suit, "it certainly may," Carroll said. "Wildlife-law enforcement has become a top-tier issue in the region."

For instance, central African ministers recently signed a regional agreement to legally enforce wildlife crime, he said.

And according to the University of Cape Town's Huntley, "Conservation is all about good governance—nothing more or less."