Gabon: 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

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

In July 2012 President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon ordered the destruction of seized ivory worth about $10 million Photo: James Morgan/WWF-canon

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.’

About narhvalur

Environmentalist, Animal Lover, Birder,Equastrian
This entry was posted in Poaching and Wildlife Trafficking, Wildlife and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Gabon: 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

  1. narhvalur says:


  2. narhvalur says:

    Thanks Michael:)!

  3. narhvalur says:

    Thanks for this Nancy:)!

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