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Leading consumer nations must join war against ivory trade

By ALI BONGO ONDIMBA | April 30th 2016

This week, African leaders have come together in Kenya to send a strong message to the world: ivory trade should be stopped.

The elephant is an iconic symbol of our continent. Unless we take action now, we risk losing this magnificent animal.

The reason for our action right now goes beyond just conservation. The Space for Giants Summit, in Nanyuki, is driven by an agenda that will protect both elephants and communities across Africa.

Like Kenya, Gabon is blessed with many elephants, but unlike those in the great savannahs, we have forest elephants inhabiting our vast rain forests. Tragically, the forest elephant’s hard, pink ivory is particularly valued by the carving industry and illegally trafficked ivory has risen to above $2,000 (Sh200,000) per kilo.

This rise in value of forest elephant ivory has resulted in a massacre. In just 10 years, we have lost as many as 70 per cent of forest elephants of Central Africa.

Today, Gabon is home to more than half of surviving forest elephants, despite having only just over 10 per cent of Africa’s rain forests.

But the value of forest elephant ivory has sparked an alarming increase in poaching. Between 2004 and 2012, we lost over 10,000 elephants from our biggest herd, in Minkebe National Park in Northeast Gabon, to heavily armed, organised criminals who cross international borders to slaughter our wildlife and steal our natural heritage.

As President, the rise in the brutal poaching poses many challenges.

Clearly, there is a moral and environmental case to protect this majestic species. Elephants create trails and clearings that other rain forest animals use. By dispersing seeds of large tree species, they contribute to growth of commercial woods. In this way, biodiversity will be severely impacted if African forests are stripped of their elephants.

As a leader committed to creating equal chances for all Gabonese people, there are also important economic and social issues that stem from poaching.

Poaching has turned elephants into refugees – fleeing criminal gangs of hunters. They find safety close to our rural villages, where the rule of law is strong and poaching a rare occurrence. They eat and trample people’s crops and terrify rural populations; as a result, for many rural areas, elephants are a cause of hunger and misery.

Indeed, one of my main reasons for attending this summit was to understand first-hand measures taken to limit human elephant conflict in conservation areas around Nanyuki. We hope to capitalise on the wealth of experience in Kenya to take decisive action to enhance communities’ interaction with elephants.

On our return to Gabon, we will implement a nationwide programme to manage human-elephant conflict, with technical support from Space for Giants. We will benefit from technological innovation in electric fences to implement extensive field trials in Gabon, adapting designs that work best for savannah elephants to their smaller forest cousins.

Reducing human elephant conflict will also help us diversify our economy, by developing industries like tourism that take advantage of our unique, protected natural wildlife. Growing wildlife tourism will create jobs in rural communities and give local populations a further stake in supporting the elephant and its natural habitat.

And we must tackle the root of the problem: illegal gangs who terrorise forests. Over the last few years, we have experienced increasing levels of violence in several parks; armed with heavy caliber rifles or automatic weapons, these bands of organized foreign nationals have become a national security issue and must be treated as such. It starts with poachers and, if we don’t do anything, tomorrow we will have terrorists.

This illegality deeply damages the fabric of society across our continent. Often, poachers take ivory and leave the body of the elephant to rot. The symbolism of our mighty elephants falling and decomposing is very strong; this is especially true in my own Bantu culture. If we let criminals and militias slaughter our natural heritage, how can we say our nations are not destined to go the same way?

We cannot solve this global problem alone. Source and consumer countries need to work together to reduce demand, as well as to restrict the supply of illicit wildlife products, which is why the Space for Giants Summit is so necessary.

We need governments and business from across the world to support our objectives. By tackling poaching we can ensure villages are safer, farmer’s crops are protected and children can grow up without fearing elephants or illegal gangs.

This week’s events in Kenya are vital in building the international momentum for change – together we must all strengthen our wildlife and law enforcement protection.

This is a fight for everything we in Africa hold dear: our children and our communities.

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