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British conservationist named Gabon forests minister after wood scandal

DAKAR (Reuters) - A British former Wildlife Conservation Society officer has been named Gabon’s forests minister, after the last one was fired over a scandal in which hundreds of containers of illegally logged kevazingo wood went missing.

Lee White, who ran the WCS programme in Gabon for nearly two decades before becoming head of the central African country’s National Parks Agency, was named late Monday, he said in his Twitter feed on Tuesday.

He has dual British-Gabonese citizenship.

Gabonese President Ali Bongo has sought to cast himself as an environmental crusader, delighting conservation groups by banning raw wood exports, enlarging protected areas and demarcating 13 new national parks since he took power after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009.

Despite those efforts Gabon remains a target for poachers, illegal logging and the illicit wildlife trade. The wood scandal this year has embarrassed Bongo’s administration.

Conservations say Gabon’s forests are nevertheless better protected than most parts of central or West Africa.

“It is an honour to have been named Minister of Forests, Environment and the Sea by President Bongo Ondimba. Now to work!” White wrote on Twitter.

Bongo has promised to punish anyone implicated in the disappearance of a cache of 392 containers of the wood, which were seized at the port of Owendo in late February and early March.

Two Chinese nationals are being held in relation to the case, and last week the head of customs, Dieudonne Lewamouo, was detained. Gabonese authorities said last month they had recovered 200 containers. [nL8N21C4GX] [nL5N22P6GD]

Although illegal logging is ravaging the forests of West and equatorial Africa, most of it driven by Chinese demand, governments rarely take action against suspected culprits or switch relevant ministers.

There is high demand in Asia for wood from the rare kevazingo tree, which can take 500 years to grow to its full height of 40 metres (130 feet). While forestry is a major industry for Gabon, the kevazingo is protected by law.

Bongo, whose family has been in power for five decades, suffered a stroke last October while abroad, but returned home in March. Secrecy surrounding his health during his five-month absence has fuelled instability in Gabon, where declining oil revenues and widespread poverty have dented his popularity. [nL5N22Q522]

Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Frances Kerry