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Dakar - As Gabonese officials laid out the government's entire ivory stocks on Wednesday, they surveyed the scene: More than 1 000 raw elephant tusks and 17 000 statues, carvings, bracelets and rings - the ivory of more than 700 elephants - lay on the ground.
It would all be burnt later on Wednesday - the pyre lit by President Ali Bongo himself - in what environmentalists have called "a historic moment".
Gabon is the first central African country to publicly burn its ivory stocks in a show of support for the fight against the ivory trade.
According to the wildlife trade monitoring group, Traffic, the move - carried out after an independent audit - is intended to prevent the government's ivory stocks, which are believed to have been accumulated largely through police seizures, from falling into the wrong hands.
It's also a statement that many hope will serve as a deterrent for ivory traders.
"Gabon is a country that has experienced theft of government ivory stocks," said Traffic's Tom Milliken.
"Many times, ivory that has been seized ends up going back into the illegal trade because of corrupt government officials. What they're doing now is a solution... (they're saying), 'let's get rid of this liability and just destroy it'," Milliken said.
"What we really need to see throughout Central Africa, are ivory stock management systems, so that ivory that is seized by governments is not leaking into illegal trade."
Earlier this year, Zambia and Mozambique had some of their government ivory stocks stolen.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), 2011 was the worst year for African elephant poaching in the last decade. Fuelled by an ongoing demand for ivory from Japan, China and other Asian countries, the ivory trade is seen as a money-making scheme in rural parts of Central Africa, where unemployment rates are typically high.
Researchers estimate that as many as 12 000 African elephants - both savanna elephants and their smaller, forest cousins - are killed for their tusks each year.
Earlier this year, more than 400 elephants were slaughtered in a remote Cameroon national park by poachers on horseback. Rights groups said they were using funds from ivory sales to bankroll operations by small-scale militia in Chad.
WWF said Wednesday's move to burn ivory stocks is symbolic, in a heavily forested region where monitoring illegal poaching can be a difficult task.
"Gabon has acted commendably in deciding to put such ivory beyond use," said Stefanie Conrad of WWF's Central Africa office. "The move ... is an indication of the country's commitment to curbing elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade."
With large swathes of rainforest and populations of hippos and chimpanzees as well as at least 1 500 elephants, Gabon stands out from its neighbours when it comes to wildlife preservation.
Late president Omar Bongo, the father of the country's current leader, designated 11 percent of the country as protected national parks. Nearly 85 percent of Gabon is coated with forest.
But although many in West and Central Africa are aware of the implications of the brutal ivory trade, some artisans say it's hard to find a financial replacement for working with ivory.
"Wood carvings do not sell as well," said Amilcar Ousmane, an artist who used to carve ivory statues from his workshop in Guinea's forest region.
"During the ivory era, we could make good money by sending carved statues to Europe. Now, I only work with wood," he said. "It's better that way for the elephant population, but I understand why poachers still want ivory." - Sapa-dpa