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A British biologist who has led the war against the plundering of wildlife and rainforest in the equatorial African nation of Gabon has been given a post in the country’s cabinet.
Investigations by Lee White, 53, into a $250 million illegal logging scandal led to the sacking of the country’s vice-president and the environment minister whose job he will now take.
Professor White, who is from Manchester but has worked in Gabon for the past three decades, will attend his first cabinet meeting tomorrow after being personally appointed by President Bongo as minister of forests, the sea and the environment.
The biologist said that he was slightly surprised at his promotion, which he believed was “a big step for the president to take”.
“It is controversial. I may be fully integrated, but I still look slightly different,” he told The Times.
The scientist, who was awarded a CBE in 2010 for services to conservation, described President Bongo, 60, as being passionate about his country’s abundance of wildlife resources. Eighty per cent of the country is forest and it is home to about half of Africa’s rare forest elephants and a population of 30,000 western lowland gorillas.
The president’s critics suggest that in seeking to cast himself as an environmental crusader by banning raw wood exports and enlarging protected areas, he is trying to improve his international image while his 1.6 million people live in poverty despite the country’s vast oil reserves.
President Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, whom he succeeded, was accused of pillaging the country during his 42-year rule until his death in 2009.
Professor White has known the president for a long time and considers his motivations to be those of one “committed to conservation”.
“He has a vision for a sustainable development mechanism that maintains natural resources and develops jobs for the Gabonese. A genuine passion and an interest are at the base of that vision,” Professor White said.
In 2002 the scientist, whose British-born wife, Kate, and their three children are with him in the country, helped persuade Omar Bongo to create 13 national parks covering 11 per cent of the rainforest nation, which is marginally bigger than Britain, to protect its forests and animals.
For years Gabon was plundered by poachers coming over the border from lawless neighbouring states resulting in the loss of a third of its forest elephants. Loggers took orders for rare and coveted hardwood species at an unsustainable rate.
Forest elephants are the smallest of the three species, their ears are more oval shaped than Africa’s savannah elephants and their tusks are straighter. They can grow up to 10 ft tall and weigh as much as five tonnes.
As head of the parks Professor White’s role is closer to military commander than scientist. He has led a small army of 800 eco-guards to face down violent gangs backed by troops from neighbouring Cameroon and persuaded Britain to send soldiers to help train his rangers.
President Bongo allocated Professor White a bodyguard and gave him top secret security clearance to work with the intelligence service and international parties. “We dealt with a lot of corruption and it is fair to say that not everybody likes me,” Professor White said.
The disappearance of 353 containers of illegally felled kevazingo hardwood from a cache of 392 containers intercepted at a Gabonese port in early March revealed the scale of corruption that as minister, Professor White must attempt to root out.
There is high demand in Asia for the wood, which comes from trees that can take 500 years to grow to their full height of 130ft (40m). While forestry is a big industry for Gabon, the kevazingo is protected by law.
His predecessor at the ministry, Guy-Bertrand Mapangou, and the vice-president Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou, faced questions over the scandal and have denied any wrongdoing.
Professor White said: “I have known the ministry for 30 years and am incorruptible, I know how it works and what needs to be done. If I can turn it around remains to be seen but at the moment it’s a mess.”