Mozambique torches ivory, rhino horns to dramatize fight against poaching

Mozambican authorities  stand near a burning pile of ivory and rhino horns in Maputo on July 6.

Story highlights

  • Four policemen arrested in connection with poaching as government cracks down
  • Seizure in May on road to airport included 1.3 tons of ivory
  • Mozambique is known as a trafficking route for illegal trade

(CNN)It made for a bizarre bonfire: thousands of pounds of ivory and hundreds of pounds of rhino horn doused with fuel and set alight Monday in the center of Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique.

The display was part of an effort by the country's government to demonstrate its commitment to fighting poaching -- in particular, the illegal hunting of elephants and rhinoceroses.
    "Today sends a signal," said Celso Correia, the minister of land, environment and rural development, after lighting the fire. "Mozambique will not tolerate poachers, traffickers and the organized criminals which employ and pay them to kill our wildlife and threaten our communities."
    One embarrassing fact: The four people known to have been arrested in connection with a huge recent seizure, which made up a big part of this stash of tusks and horns, were policemen.
    That prompted the country's president to issue a statement saying that, when he hears that policemen have been caught trafficking in rhino horns or elephant tusks, he cannot sleep.
    The tusks siezed were expected to burn for 24 hours.
    In May, surveys done by the government in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society showed that the elephant population of the country had declined 48% in the last five years.
    The country's last rhinoceros died in 2013.
    Those surveys, along with Mozambique's reputation as a trafficking route for illegal trade, have driven the government to act, according to information provided by the British High Commission, which is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to stop poaching.
    In its effort to crack down, the government has enacted new laws, deployed new "environmental police," and strengthened partnerships with international organizations and other countries, according to the High Commission.
    A major seizure of the tusks and horns took place on May 22, on the road, as the illegal items were being transported to the airport in Maputo, said Lola Lopez, prosperity and human rights officer in Maputo for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The amount confiscated was 1.3 tons of ivory and 65 pieces of rhino horn, making it the largest seizure of such items in the country's history.
    In all, the collected contraband burned on Monday totaled nearly 2.7 tons of ivory and more than 425 pounds of rhino horn.
    The tusks and horns were expected to burn for 24 hours.