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Gabon threatens crackdown over theft of sacred wood

Customs officers had discovered the collection of rare hardwood worth millions of dollars in February and March at two Chinese-owned depots at the Owendo timber port on the Libreville peninsula.

Gabon's President Ali Bongo. Picture: Facebook.

LIBREVILLE - The Gabon presidency on Monday threatened to come down heavily on anyone found responsible for the theft of hundreds of seized containers of kevazingo, a wood considered sacred.

Customs officers had discovered the collection of rare hardwood worth millions of dollars in February and March at two Chinese-owned depots at the Owendo timber port on the Libreville peninsula.

But later more than 350 containers confiscated by the authorities "curiously disappeared", according to the Libreville prosecutor.

The wood had allegedly been loaded into containers bearing water and forestry ministry labels, falsely describing it as okoume - a kind of timber cleared for export.

President Ali Bongo "wishes that exemplary sentences be handed down, once those responsible are identified and caught. There is no room for weakness, or impunity regardless of the rank of those concerned," the presidency said in a statement, adding: "corruption has no place in Gabon."

Kevazingo, also known as bubinga, takes many years to mature, and the wood is highly valued in Asia where it can fetch up to $2,000 per cubic metre.

Gabon, three quarters of whose land mass is forested, last year banned the exploitation of kevazingo after illegal felling reached alarming proportions.

The wood is listed as under threat by CITES, the international convention covering endangered fauna and flora.

The industry is hugely important for the West African nation's economy, supporting some 17,000 jobs, and is second only to the petroleum sector in terms of foreign earnings and accounts for 60% of non-oil related GDP.

The Gabon press has seized on the scandal, dubbing it "kevazingogate".

"Even the most talented of magicians or the great exponent of voodoo couldn't have pulled this off," the pro-government daily L'Union wrote in an editorial.

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