One man’s war on the ivory poachers of Gabon
As a frenzy of ivory poaching in central Africa brings forest elephants to the brink of extinction, in Gabon a British-born zoologist has joined forces with the president to declare war on the hunters. Photographs by James Morgan
By Martin Fletcher
7:00AM GMT 03 Feb 2014
From the air the Minkébé National Park in the central African state of Gabon would inspire wonder in even the most jaded traveller. Its steamy equatorial rainforest stretches from horizon to horizon, unbroken by a single track or human habitation, punctuated only by occasional swamps and granite outcrops. It is a dense green jungle the size of Belgium, with towering trees – some hundreds of years old and 150ft high. The occasional giant with bright red foliage protrudes above the rest, catching the eye like a flicker of flame.
Minkébé appears impenetrable, virginal, a paradise uncorrupted by man. But that lush tropical canopy conceals temptation and evil in abundance. In the past decade as many as 15,000 of its 22,000 forest elephants have been slaughtered; destroyed by China’s lust for ivory and the avarice of its African accomplices. They have been killed by poachers with the help of illegal goldminers and Baka pygmies, the indigenous people of the forest. Supposedly a sanctuary, Minkébé has become a graveyard where the carcasses of elephants are devoured by carpets of maggots. There are no vultures to pick the bones clean; the forest is too thick.
Aerial surveillance is impossible so the killings became apparent only when the results of a survey based on dung findings were collated early last year. ‘It was worse than our worst nightmare,’ Lee White, the British-born zoologist who heads Gabon’s national parks agency, said. ‘Now,’ he added, ‘it’s a war.’
An aerial view of the vast Minkébé National Park. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
Across Africa, elephants are being slaughtered in record numbers, as a British government-sponsored summit for 50 heads of state and foreign ministers in London this month will hear. Up to 30,000 elephants a year are killed for their tusks, which now fetch about $900 a pound on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai. Elephant numbers have fallen from 1.3 million in the 1970s to barely 400,000 now.
But the smaller forest elephants of the vast Congo river basin, a subspecies with straight tusks of particularly fine ivory, are facing almost total annihilation. In obscure countries far from the tourist trail three quarters of them have been killed over the past decade, leaving fewer than 100,000. ‘It’s an ivory frenzy,’ Pauwel De Wachter, the regional coordinator of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), said. ‘We’re in the middle of a big, big, big crisis.’
Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville have probably lost half their elephant populations. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which once boasted nearly 400,000, may have only 10,000 left. In Ivory Coast, named for its formerly abundant herds, and in countries such as Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and the Central African Republic, remnants cling on in a few remaining pockets of forest, but in numbers too small to be viable. They are ‘ecologically extinct’, victims of a ‘tidal wave of poaching’, White said.
Gabon has lost a third of its forest elephants but still has 40,000 or 45,000 – perhaps half of all those left in Africa. The former French colony has something else, too. It has an improbable alliance between White, a soft-spoken Mancunian academic who was awarded a CBE for services to conservation in 2010, and its president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has become Africa’s foremost advocate of a global offensive against ivory trafficking. Together they have begun to confront the braconniers – the poachers – in a way that few other African states have attempted to. They have embarked on what might be described as the final battle for the survival of the forest elephant.
Elephants in the Wanga Wangue reserve, Gabon. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
White, 48, was born in Altrincham but spent much of his youth in Africa, once attending a school in Uganda with an African dictator’s son who would tell him, after they fought, ‘I’m going to tell my dad to kill your dad.’ He moved to Gabon as a PhD student in 1989 and stayed because it was a zoologist’s dream – a country larger than Britain that is 85 per cent forest and where new species of animal are still regularly discovered. White set up the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gabon programme. At one point he was declared persona non grata by President Omar Bongo, the incumbent’s autocratic father who ruled Gabon for 41 years, for opposing a logging project. But then in 2002 he helped persuade Omar Bongo to create 13 national parks covering 11,600 square miles. As White tells it, the president had no idea how beautiful his own country was until he was shown pictures of its wildernesses. To create the parks Oman Bongo cancelled – in one stroke – 5,400 square miles of logging concessions.
White also got to know the president’s Sorbonne-educated son, who was then the defence minister. Ali Bongo, 54, is an interesting character with a prop forward’s build and a love of fast cars and boats. But he also has a London home, sends his sons to British public schools, studies history and architecture, and composes music that has been performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He developed a love of wildlife while growing up with a menagerie of tigers, jaguars and other animals that his father received as gifts from fellow African leaders and kept on the 2,000 square mile presidential reserve south of Libreville, the capital. He now has a private zoo as well, and was an honoured guest in London last September when the Duke of Cambridge awarded the inaugural Tusk Awards for Conservation in partnership with Investec Asset Management.
President Ali Bongo and Lee White at the ivory burn, July 2013. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
Seven years ago White, who, along with his partner, Kate Abernethy, has taken Gabonese citizenship, took Ali Bongo and his wife Sylvie on an overnight camping trip to the Ivindo National Park in central Gabon. They dispensed with their security guards, relaxed, slept well, enjoyed the sounds of the forest, and early the next morning went to a forest clearing called Langoue Bai. An elephant arrived with its baby, followed by eight gorillas, then some otters. ‘That magical place got to him,’ White said. ‘From that moment I basically became a friend.’
When Bongo succeeded his late father after a disputed election in 2009, he appointed White the head of the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), putting him in charge of 11 per cent of the country. The appointment was a dubious honour. The elder Bongo had created the parks, but was too ill and old to set up a service to run them. White inherited a skeletal staff and not a single vehicle. Meanwhile the poachers were running amok and nowhere more so than Minkébé, which boasted the world’s largest concentration of forest elephants.
The poachers poured across the unguarded Ayina river, which marks the park’s northern border with Cameroon, across its eastern border with Congo-Brazzaville, and up the logging trails that run to the very edge of the park inside Gabon. They came, and still come, in gangs of 30 or 40, staying for a month or two, moving from camp to camp and walking hundreds of miles. They bring tents, satellite telephones, chain saws for removing tusks, scales for weighing them and high-powered rifles that are often provided, White says, by corrupt members of Cameroon’s military. They kill elephants so young that their tusks are only inches long.
Villagers in the Gamba district of Gabon inspect the skeleton of an elephant, minus its tusks, left behind by poachers. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
The gangs use Baka pygmies as hunters, guides and porters. Traditionally the Baka were hunter-gatherers who lived entirely off the forest, killing its animals for bushmeat, collecting honey from high in its canopy, using its barks, plants and leaves for medicines. Today they live in wretched villages scattered around northern Gabon and southern Cameroon. They are treated as little more than slaves by the Bantu majority. Few have jobs. Many drink. They are easy fodder for poachers who offer them perhaps $150, or supplies of alcohol, tobacco and food, to join a gang for several weeks.
‘We do it because we have no alternative, but it’s not good money,’ Robert Malonga protested as he sat in Mfefe Nlam, a rubbish-strewn Baka village lacking electricity or running water near the town of Minvoul. ‘You have a wife and children to feed. You need fuel for your lamps, and that’s the only offer you have,’ François Mengue said. A lot of young men leave with the poachers and never return, the pair added.
Astonishingly, the poachers paint their names on trees in Minkébé, or mocking messages such as ‘This forest is for all of us, not just the Gabonese’. They ostentatiously leave spent cartridges on sticks. And why not? Until recently Minkébé’s only protection came from a few unarmed ecoguards (rangers). If caught, the poachers either bribe their way out of trouble or face a maximum penalty of six months for an offence defined as a ‘wildlife infraction’, not a crime.
The Baka people, formerly hunters, are often reduced to helping the poachers. Photo: Martin Fletcher
Last September ecoguards caught 14 Chinese labourers at a sawmill just outside Minkébé preparing to breakfast on roasted elephant trunk, and found elephant skins and raw ivory. Only the cook was successfully prosecuted. He received a three-month sentence. ‘It’s harmful, discouraging and disappointing,’ Hiver Ntsame Ndong, a veteran ecoguard, said of the paltry sentences. ‘The poachers taunt us when they get out. We’re doing our work for nothing.’
The day I left Minkébé the police arrested Jean-Philippe Nkaga, a notorious poacher in Minvoul, at the behest of Conservation Justice (CJ), an NGO that investigates wildlife crime and helps the authorities bring prosecutions. ‘After five months he will be out and mocking us,’ Yannick Owonu, a CJ lawyer, complained as we visited Nkaga in a damp, filthy cell and heard him protest his innocence. ‘He’ll go back to poaching when he’s released – they all do.’
Nor do the poachers restrict themselves to elephants. They also kill gorillas, leopards, chimpanzees, buffalo, duikers, red river hogs – almost anything that moves. Minkébé once teemed with wildlife, but ‘now we can walk three or four or five days and not see an animal,’ Joseph Okouyi, 41, a mountain of a man who administers Minkébé for the ANPN, said. Conserving wildlife is not, it appears, a priority for most Gabonese. They regard bushmeat as their birthright, and a source of cash at times of need. Poaching increases sharply at the start of each school year when fees must be paid. Roadside stalls offer dishes of crocodile, porcupine, pangolin and duiker. At one I found the owner boiling mandrill skulls right next to a sign listing them as a protected species. Everyone laughed when I pointed that out. ‘The concept of conservation means nothing here,’ one resident westerner said.
Jean-Philippe Nkaga. Photo: Martin Fletcher
Bongo is currently pushing legislation through parliament to introduce a minimum three-year sentence for poaching, and life for involvement with organised crime and hopes he will be able to sign it before the London summit.
The fightback finally began in 2011 when Mike Fay, an American colleague of White’s, and Richard Ruggiero, an official from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, returned to Libreville from Minkébé with shocking news. They had discovered 6,000 people living in an illegal gold mining camp, the majority of them Cameroonians, many holding false residency and mining permits obtained from corrupt Gabonese officials. There were prostitutes, hard drugs, signs of child slavery and large quantities of ivory. A trail led more than 60 miles northwards through the forest to Cameroon – another gift for poachers. ‘They estimated 50 to 100 elephants a day were being killed. We were just being overrun,’ said White, who appealed to the president for help. Bongo dispatched 200 troops to close the camp down.
Apart from two huge pits filled with muddy brown water, little now remains of a mining operation that previously produced some 4lb of gold a day. The jungle is rapidly reclaiming the wooden sluices, rusting generators, wheelbarrows, panning bowls, jerry cans, bottles and other debris that the miners left behind. But the soldiers are still there, living in the shacks that served as the bars, brothels and stores of what was evidently a town straight out of the American Wild West. The military also occupies three smaller gold mining camps in Minkébé that it shut down in 2011. I visited each on the helicopter that ferries fresh soldiers in each month – the only other way into Minkébé’s interior an arduous three-day journey by foot and canoe up the tannin-black Nouna river.
Ecoguards patrol the rivers in Minkébé Park hoping to catch poachers as they transport their hauls out of the forest. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
The camps are tiny clearings. The air is clammy, the heat debilitating. The surrounding forest is so thick, the trees so laden with vines and creepers that few shafts of sunlight penetrate to its muddy floor. At one a hand-painted sign proclaims ‘Bienvenue au site Minkouka – nul n’entre ici s’il n’a le moral du cadavre’ (‘No one enters here unless they have the spirit of a corpse’). A notice pinned to a tree warns, only partly in jest, of gorillas, crocodiles, snakes, swarms of deadly bees, lethal bacteria and extreme isolation. ‘Death is present every day’, it concludes cheerfully.
The young soldiers were undaunted. ‘I hate the poachers. We must stop them,’ one declared. ‘They come to our country and steal our gold and ivory,’ another complained. Some, armed with semi-automatics, go out on patrol for three weeks with the ecoguards, searching for the poachers’ footprints, fires or machete marks, tracking them for days at a time if necessary. Usually the poachers surrender or flee, but recently they have started to shoot at their pursuers. From January to November last year 141 people were arrested for poaching or gold-mining in Minkébé, 82 of them Cameroonian and 43 Gabonese, and 73 tusks seized. About a quarter of those arrested are pygmies, a figure that White would like to turn around by recruiting the Baka to work with his army of ecoguards in the fight against the poachers.
Sending in the army was only the start. Bongo, who has substantial oil revenues at his disposal, has increased White’s budget from $1 million in 2009 to $18 million last year, and his staff to 600. He is creating an elite, 240-strong ‘jungle brigade’ that is receiving training from the US Marines and will be under White’s command – in Minkébé its members may be allowed to shoot armed poachers on sight. The ANPN is planning to purchase two more helicopters from the US military, and last February acquired two British sniffer dogs to check the luggage of passengers leaving Libreville’s airport. Between them they find ivory trinkets, sharks fins and other illegal wildlife products two or three times a week, often covered in perfume, palm oil or foodstuffs to mask the smell. Four fifths of the offenders are Chinese, thousands of whom work for logging, mining or road construction projects in Gabon. None has been prosecuted because the mechanisms for doing so have yet to be worked out in this land of bureaucratic torpor. None has even missed his flight.
Joseph Okouyi, an ecoguard at Minkébé National Park, issues directions to his staff. Photo: Martin Fletcher
Bongo has shut Libreville’s illegal ivory markets – Chinese journalists invited to the city by the WWF in 2012 were entirely unsuccessful when they posed as clandestine buyers. Most dramatically, that same year, Bongo set fire to Gabon’s ivory stockpile – nearly five tons of tusks worth about $10 million seized from poachers or retrieved from dead elephants – on a hill overlooking the city to demonstrate the country’s ‘zero tolerance’ for wildlife crime. The pyre was guarded for three days until the ivory was reduced to ashes.
Cracking down on widespread corruption is also taking time. Several officials have been fired, but everyone knows that other senior politicians are involved. Luc Mathot, a Belgian who runs Conservation Justice, said ‘the police sometimes refuse to make an arrest because they know the traders, especially in small towns.’ White insisted, however, ‘there’s a genuine effort to wipe out corruption… The president has made it clear to me that no one in Gabon is untouchable.’ He maintains that he has never yet been told to leave a suspect alone.
Poaching is disastrous on many levels, not just for the future of the forest elephants. It is a tragedy for the thousand rangers across Africa who have been killed in the past decade, and for entire ecological systems – forest elephants distribute the seeds of hardwood trees in their dung, and maintain tracks and clearings for other animals. Beyond that the multi billion-dollar illegal ivory trade – now the world’s biggest criminal enterprise after arms, drugs and human trafficking – subverts law and order, corrupts governments and threatens national economies that depend on tourism. Increasingly it finances international crime syndicates, rebel militias and terrorist groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab, which carried out the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in 2013.
Elephant poaching ‘has gone beyond an environmental issue. It threatens the very stability of our countries,’ said Bongo, who will appeal for a concerted global response when he addresses the London summit in the presence of the Prince of Wales, with whom he has a good working relationship, the Duke of Cambridge, David Cameron and William Hague.
The poaching of bushmeat for sale has devastated numbers of many species. Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon
Bongo has his critics. Some contend that he shows more concern for Gabon’s wildlife than its impoverished citizens. They suggest that championing conservation is a cynical way to improve the international image of a man whose father was accused of plundering the wealth of his country. They complain that his actions fall short of his rhetoric, citing Gabon’s continuing corruption as an example. White, now a trusted adviser who often travels abroad with Bongo, appealed for patience. ‘We’re trying to create a national park service in a country that hasn’t had one. We’re trying to overcome other problems – the legal system, corruption. We can’t do that overnight. It takes time to develop support and train people. If you’re going to win a war the key thing is developing an esprit de corps so they abide by the law and are ready to do tough missions.’
A few days before I visited one of the Minkébé camps the soldiers had seen three elephants on the edge of the clearing. They were the first anyone had spotted there for years, and there was much excitement as Joseph Okouyi studied the pictures on the soldiers’ mobile telephones.
‘It’s our first result,’ he exclaimed. White is cautiously optimistic. ‘I wouldn’t say we’re winning. We’ve reduced poaching but we haven’t stopped it. We’ve not really even contained it,’ he said. ‘But in 2014 we will get the upper hand.’