US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, hailed the Cameroon ceremony as symbolic of commitment to win war against illegal smuggling of animal products
Some 2,000 illegally trafficked elephant tusks and hundreds of finished ivory products erupted in a ball of fire on Tuesday as Cameroonian authorities conducted what was believed to be one of the largest burnings of poached wildlife goods in African history.
Setting the pyre aflame in a sandy square in Cameroons capital, Samantha Power, Americas UN ambassador, joined Cameroonian officials in hailing the ceremony as symbolic of their commitment to win the war against illegal smuggling of animal products.
Central Africas forest elephants have declined in number by two-thirds between 2002 and 2012.
All of our countries can and must do more, Power said. The burning sends a clear message, she added, that the only place ivory belongs and the only value ivory has is on elephants.
The heap included ivory chess boards, beadings, totem poles and even miniature elephant sculptures, all intermixed with the raw tusks. Cameroonian officials said the pile totaled 3.5 tons of tusk alone, though the above figures could not be verified. What is certain is the merchandise was worth millions of dollars. The pyre will burn for three days.
Philip Ngole Ngwese, Cameroons ministers responsible for forestry and wildlife, said the confiscated tusks and ivory, much of which originated abroad, were now beyond reach. He also described the human costs of poaching, mourning several guidebooks and park rangers who have been killed in recent years.
Cameroons biggest city, Douala, is a port through which much of the regions trafficked goods transit overseas.
Power, on a weeklong trip-up to promote the fight against the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram, also satisfied President Paul Biya and other senior Cameroonian officials. She announced $40 m in new US humanitarian aid to the region.
The US has some 200 special operations forces-out in Cameroon advising and assisting African troops in the fight. Power, inducing the first trip-up to the country by a US cabinet member in a quarter-century, stressed the need for Cameroonian soldiers to exercise restraint amid reports they have sometimes targeted civilians.
Any fight against terrorism has to be comprehensive, she said, echoing statements she made in Cameroons embattled north on Monday. Political inclusiveness, good governance, economic developing and combatting extremism at the grassroots level, she said, are every bit as critical as ones military campaign itself.
Smoke billowed from the pyre as the ivory tusks turned black and statuettes smoldered.
Ivory-burning ceremonies are not a gesture universally appreciated even in Cameroon. Some wonder why the valuable tusks are not reused in some capability, given the elephants are already dead.
Echoing such sentiments, one local journalist asked Power why the tusks are not preserved in museums for future generations that may never watch elephants.
I dont want to think about contingency plans for if elephants are eliminated from the wild, Power said.
The event and Powers participation underscored the Obama administrations effort to prioritize the fight against wildlife trafficking. In doing so, it is trying to break a multibillion-dollar criminal industry that officials say sometimes interweaves with drug trafficking and even terrorist enterprises. The US held its own ivory crushes in 2013 and 2015.
In March, a US taskforce said a turning point had been reached in the global endeavor to strengthen enforcement, reduce demand and expand international cooperation. But much ultimately depends on China cracking down, because its citizens are driving global demand.
As a port of exit, Cameroon plays a major role in snuffing out ivory smuggling from Central Africa, where several countries are struggling to assert control over their own territory, and national park are often poorly protected. Cameroon, too, has suffered from poaching.
Four years ago, armed poaching gangs from Sudan massacred more than half of the elephants in the Bouba Njida national park in northern Cameroon. The raids highlighted the vulnerability of elephants even in stable African countries. Biya, who is 83, has ruled Cameroon for more than 30 years.
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