Minkebe national park is the front line in Gabon’s escalating war with poachers. Bordered by Cameroon to the north and Congo to the east, the Belgium-sized expanse of pristine rainforest is an easy target for central African gangs looking to make a quick buck from Africa’s white gold.
Gabon has around 40,000 forest elephants — roughly half the world’s population — a large proportion of which live in Minkebe. But what was once a haven for the sub-species has, for 15 years, been a site of mass slaughter.
From 2002 to 2011, poachers ran amok in the park. Beyond the reach of the authorities, a camp of 7,000 people trading ivory, gold, prostitutes and drugs sprung up amid soaring gold and ivory prices, the latter reaching a high of $240 a kilo. By the time Gabonese paratroopers razed the camp in 2011, over 10,000 of Minkebe’s elephants were dead.
A permanent battalion of 100 eco-guards and soldiers now patrol Minkebe, but poachers have returned, crossing from Cameroon in smaller groups of 10 to 50. For six months clashes have increased in frequency and intensity as hunters embraced a new tactic: shooting at eco-guards on sight.
“It’s worse than ever,” says Professor Lee White, the British-born director of Gabon’s national parks agency (ANPN). “In the past, poachers would drop their weapons and run. But recently they’ve been shooting at my men at the first opportunity.”
The escalation is driven partly by improvements in the ranger force. With training from British and US armies, ANPN guards have never been so effective at tracking and apprehending poachers. But it’s also down to pressure piled on hunters, usually poor members of the persecuted baka pygmy minority, by ruthless and brutal paymasters operating out of a military base in Djoum, just over the Cameroon border.
As long as the rewards from ivory remain so high, conservationists will continue to face aggressive tactics from poachers on the front line. Last November a soldier with an eco-guard patrol was shot in the shin by a poacher armed with a Kalashnikov. The bullet exploded his bone and he had to travel three days through the forest to reach an area where a helicopter could get him out.
Despite these challenges, Gabon is committed to protecting its elephants.
Since succeeding his father in 2009, President Ali Bongo has prioritised the modernisation of Gabon’s national parks. When Prof White took over ANPN the same year, it had no vehicles and just 60 staff controlling 13 national parks and three million hectares. It now employs 700 and has a budget of almost $20 million, which pays for military training, weapons and vehicles.
The improvements have been a life-line for the forest elephant, whose hard, straight tusks are prized by consumers and carvers in the Far East. The subspecies faces an especially perilous future because of the lawless and war torn regions in which it roams; densely forested parts of the Congo basin, where Kalashnikovs change hands for fistfuls of dollars. Scientists say poachers slaughtered two thirds of forest elephants in just over a decade.
Source: The Independent U.K.