By Humphrey Malalo
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya burnt 15 tonnes of ivory on Tuesday and promised to destroy all of its stockpile this year, the latest step in its campaign against elephant poaching.
Poaching has surged in the last few years across sub-Saharan Africa, where gangs kill elephants and rhinos to feed Asian demand for ivory and horns for use in folk medicines.
A 2014 U.N. and Interpol report estimated that about 20,000 to 25,000 elephants were killed in Africa every year, out of a total population of as many as 650,000.
"As part of Kenya’s continued policy to put ivory beyond
economic use ... I will today burn 15 tonnes of ivory at this historic site in Nairobi National Park," President Uhuru Kenyatta said during a ceremony at the park. "In order to underline our determination to eradicate poaching, my government shall burn the rest of the stockpile within this year."
The ceremony was to mark the African Union-designated Wangari Maathai Day, in honor of the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and the World Wildlife Day.
Kenya has imposed stiffer penalties -- longer jail terms and bigger fines -- for wildlife poaching or trafficking, saying poaching is harming tourism, a major earner of foreign exchange.
In January 2014, a Kenyan court convicted a Chinese man of smuggling ivory and ordered him to pay a fine of 20 million shillings ($233,000) or serve seven years in jail, the first sentencing since Kenya introduced the new anti-poaching law.
A Kenyan man is in police custody accused of being behind an international poaching syndicate involving elephant tusks and was linked to a three-tonne haul of ivory seized in Mombasa in June 2014.
"Illegal trade in wildlife has become a sophisticated transnational form of crime, comparable to other pernicious examples, such as trafficking of drugs, humans, counterfeit items and oil," U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement.
"It is driven by rising demand, and is often facilitated by corruption and weak governance. There is strong evidence of the increased involvement of organized crime networks and non-State armed groups."
In 2011, then-President Mwai Kibaki set fire to five tonnes of contraband ivory. His predecessor, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, did the same in 1989.
(Additional reporting and; writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Larry King)