By Hereward Holland
MANYANI, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki set fire to five tonnes of contraband ivory on Wednesday, a symbol of his and Africa's renewed commitment to fight poaching.
Elephant numbers had started to recover after the ivory trade was banned in 1990, but observers say the rising wealth of east Asian countries has caused a price and demand spike in recent years.
Mirroring a ceremony by former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi 22 years ago, Kibaki said the burning of 335 tusks, worth 1.5 billion shillings ($16 mln), sent a signal to poachers and ivory traffickers.
"We wish to firmly demonstrate to the world our determination to eliminate all forms of illegal trade in ivory," Kibaki told the crowd, before lighting the grey curled tusks. "Poachers and illegal trades in ivory must know that their days are numbered."
During the colonial period ivory was highly prized and exported for use as piano keys, billiard balls and other products.
Poaching peaked in the 1970s and 1980s and by 1989, the east African nation had just 16,000 elephants. Conservation efforts have since more than doubled their numbers, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
But new threats are emerging. Demand from Asia, and China in particular, is pushing up the price of ivory on the black-market and increasing incentives for poaching, said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of charity Save the Elephants.
"Right now there's been a flare-up in illegal killings that we haven't seen in 20 years. Over the past two and half years the price of ivory has gone up crazily, evidently fueled by demand from the far east," Douglas-Hamilton told Reuters in front of the burning pile.
The ivory was seized in Singapore in 2002 and taken to Kenya. DNA testing later showed that the batch came from Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania.
"I think the only thing that will stop them is proper law enforcement and reducing the incentives, which will involve raising consciousness in China on the effects of killing," Douglas-Hamilton said.
A long overdue wildlife bill aims to introduce tougher punishments and fines to poachers and smugglers in Kenya, and regional governments say they are stepping up efforts to stop trafficking, through a common approach.
"On behalf of the African continent we are committed in addressing a total elimination of illegal wildlife trade," said Uganda Tourism Minister Ephraim Kamuntu.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri)