The strongroom is in an underground car park below the well-guarded headquarters of Ethiopia’s Wildlife Conservation Authority in Addis Ababa.
To admit visitors Teressa Bayeta, the sole keyholder, has to open five separate locks on a heavy metal shutter and the steel door behind it.
The reason for such security is instantly apparent: the windowless vault — the size of a double garage — is stacked from floor to ceiling with poached ivory.
Ahead of Wednesday’s London summit on ways to combat the illegal wildlife trade, The Telegraph was last week given unprecedented access to Ethiopia’s stockpile of so-called “white gold” — and it served as a shocking reminder of the wholesale slaughter of elephants that is sweeping across Africa.
The dimly-lit strongroom contains more than 28,000 separate items ranging from several hundred tusks to row upon row of sealed plastic bags filled with chopsticks, bangles, necklaces, figurines, combs, cigarette holders and trinkets. Those items have a combined weight of 6.3 tons, the equivalent of the tusks of at least 600 elephants, and would be worth a much as $18 million (£11 million) on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai, where ivory is considered the ultimate status symbol.
Almost all the ivory was poached elsewhere in Africa, and seized from Chinese nationals smuggling it home through Addis Ababa’s international airport, a hub with direct flights to the Far East.
The strongroom is, in short, a shrine to the avarice that has reduced an African elephant population once measured in the millions to barely 400,000. Roughly 100 of those primordial creatures are being shot, speared or poisoned each day, and some of the tusks bear the marks of the axes with which poachers hacked them from the skulls of dead or dying elephants.
The largest tusk is taller than a grown man, weighs 116lb and came from one of the very few grand old “tuskers” left on the continent (it was found in a wooden crate marked “Medicine”). The smallest, just inches long, came from baby elephants, showing how utterly indiscriminate the poachers have become in their lust for ivory.
As he surveyed the laden shelves, Mr Bayeta, 41, a former national park ranger with a passion for wildlife, said the seized ivory was a measure of failure, not success. “It makes me sad and very angry because Africa’s elephants are being destroyed,” he added.
Ethiopia’s stockpile, large as it is, represents only a tiny percentage of the ivory flowing out of Africa. Fetene Hailu Buta, head of the anti-trafficking directorate at the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA), said the law-enforcement agencies can seize only a fraction of the ivory smuggled through the airport as they lack sniffer dogs and scanning machines required to check transit baggage.
A Nigerian was caught with 230lb of ivory only because a tusk pierced the side of his suitcase as it was being transferred between flights.
Moreover, Ethiopia’s stockpile is small by international standards. Tanzania alone has more than 100 tons of ivory recovered from poached or naturally deceased elephants. Worldwide, at least 550 tons — the equivalent of 55,000 elephants — are thought to be held in national stockpiles, and experts reckon only about a tenth of all ivory smuggled out of Africa is intercepted.
What to do with those steadily growing collections of confiscated contraband has been one of the most contentious issues in the war against an illegal trade in animal parts — a trade worth $10 billion a year to the criminal gangs running it. It is an issue that has divided Africa, and will resurface at this week’s conference.
Southern African states with large elephant populations have previously sought to sell their stockpiles, arguing that to do so would undercut the black market and raise funds for protecting wildlife.
Most of the rest of Africa says that “regulated trade” has been tried before and proved disastrous. In 1989, at the height of a previous poaching frenzy, the 103 parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted overwhelmingly to prohibit worldwide trade in African ivory. The ban worked. Ivory prices collapsed. Poaching all but stopped.
But in 2008, CITES approved a one-off sale by Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa of 108 tons of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan. Environmentalists maintain that far from satisfying China’s demand for ivory, the sale fuelled it. It suggested to Chinese consumers that buying ivory was acceptable. It allowed illegal ivory to be laundered as legal ivory, and poaching resumed in earnest.
In London, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, will say that his government is willing in principle to join the growing list of countries that have destroyed their stockpiles, and would do so as part of a three-pronged plan that is attracting interest from both sides of the debate.
Stop Ivory, a UK-registered charity founded by several leading conservationists who arranged for this newspaper’s access to the stockpile, is helping to promote that plan. It calls for the voluntary destruction of all national stockpiles — a move that would send a dramatic message to the world that trading in ivory is unacceptable, end confusion by removing most legal ivory from the markets, and stop those stockpiles leaking.
Two previous custodians of Ethiopia’s stockpile were jailed for theft, and Mr Bayeta insists he would not entrust the strongroom keys even to his wife.
There would be a moratorium on international trade in ivory. The international community would use that breathing space to fund the so-called African Elephant Action Plan, which was agreed by Africa’s “range states” in 2010 and contains detailed steps for tackling poachers and disrupting trading networks.
As a first step Ethiopia has engaged Stop Ivory to help compile a detailed inventory of its stockpile — measuring, marking and photographing every item.
“We’re on the way to facilitating the destruction of our stockpile even though the when and how is not yet decided,” Dawid Mume Ali, EWCA’s director general, said.
But Mr Mume made it clear that Ethiopia expects financial and logistical support from the international community, and it urgently needs such help not just to intercept more smuggled ivory but to save its elephants from extinction.
EWCA is making strenuous efforts, but its annual budget is less than $2 million. Around 90 per cent of its elephants have been killed in what Shelley Waterland, programme manager of the Born Free Foundation, described as a “devastating” onslaught. Barely a thousand are left.
The remote Babile Elephant Sanctuary in eastern Ethiopia has around 300 of those, but lost 42 last year alone to armed poachers from neighbouring Somalia who operate with virtual impunity.
To protect Babile’s 2,700 square miles EWCA has not a single aircraft, 29 ill-equipped rangers, and just one working vehicle.