By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The central African nation of Gabon will burn its government stockpiles of ivory on Wednesday against the backdrop of a surge in the killing of elephants and rhinos across the continent to meet surging Asian demand.
Conservation group WWF and TRAFFIC, which monitors the global wildlife trade, said in a statement the tusks and carvings would be set alight by Gabon's President Ali Bongo after they had been subjected to an independent audit to ensure none had been pilfered for illegal sale.
Gabon will be the first country in its neighborhood to publicly destroy its ivory, following a path blazed over two decades ago by the east African nation of Kenya.
The independent audit of its stockpiles is significant after wildlife groups reported that Zambia lost 3 metric tonnes (3.3 tons) of ivory from government storage last week while Mozambique had 1.1 million metric tonnes stolen in February.
"If not managed properly, ivory stockpiles in the hands of government suddenly ‘get legs' and move into illegal trade. Gabon's actions effectively keep the ivory out of the way of temptation," said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC's ivory trade expert.
The audited ivory Gabon will put to the torch weighs in at 4,825 kgs (10,600 pounds), including tusks and almost 18,000 worked or carved items.
The illegal slaughter of elephants and rhinos is on the rise, an unsavory aspect of Asia's scramble for African resources, driven by the growing purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes.
In South Africa, over 250 rhinos have been killed so far this year alone to meet demand for the animal's horn, which is worth more than its weight in gold. More are being killed each week now than were being taken on an annual basis a decade ago.
A record number of big ivory seizures were made globally in 2011 and the trend looks set to continue in 2012 as elephant massacres take place from Congo to Cameroon.
Trade in rhino horn is strictly prohibited while that for ivory is mostly illegal, although CITES allows worked ivory to be sold in Zimbabwe and Namibia. In 2008 CITES also allowed South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to hold one-off auctions of ivory stockpiles.
Some conservationists argue for a blanket ban to remain in place on the grounds that "dirty" ivory can get laundered with the legal supply.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney)