Elephant Poaching Pandemic in Central Africa
by Eric Turquin
, Vice President CIC Tropical Game Commission
Large scale organized elephant poaching in Central and West Africa is not new. It started in earnest in the 1970’ with armed groups from Chad and Sudan crossing the border into the north of the Central African Republic and destroying large herds of elephants. The Laboureur family in La Koumbala had been fighting these groups at the end of the 1970’s with some success. At the end of the 1990s commercial poaching reappeared on an even larger scale with Sudanese guerrilla groups armed with AK47 rifles crossed the border between Birao and the Oubangui River with camels and donkey caravans, entering the remote areas of the eastern CAR and then in the north near Bamingui where are the best hunting zones are located. Elephant enjoy a fully protected status in CAR since 1983. Legal elephant safari hunting was closed in this year on a temporary basis, but never reopened.
As a sad consequence to the elephant hunting closure, the first reaction on the renewed poaching of the Central African professional hunting community as well as its very small tourist industry was to keep quiet in order to avoid frightening prospective clients. Elephant had lost his economic value as a game species and certainly wasn’t protected decently anymore. Nevertheless, in the year 2000 safari hunting operators in the CAR joined forces and founded the APFC (Association pour la Protection de la Faune Centrafricaine). The operators started to put down some money to organize anti-poaching efforts. In 2001, the Central African safari operators cooperated with the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation CIC to organize the first Diner des Elephants in Paris in order to raise funds for coordinated anti-poaching efforts. From this year onwards the annual Diner des Elephants raised between hundred and hundred twenty thousand Euro each year until 2007. The funds were destined to help CAR Armed Forces in buying equipment and providing training. But the efforts ultimately failed because funds and equipment proved to be insufficient. In is a known fact that CAR amongst the poorest countries in the world and sadly it has a long tradition of surrender to its northern and eastern Muslim neighbours. Ivory poaching gangs from these neighboring countries arrived in ever larger numbers, and as a consequence of the lucrative but illicit proceeds from their poaching their operations became more and more sophisticated and organized, using all kind of newer technical gadgets to get more efficient.
Today the remnant elephant populations in northern CAR tether on the verge of a catastrophic collapse. Sudanese poaching gangs, who used to stay in the CAR elephant areas every year for two to three months during the dry season, now operate in the areas for most of the year. They not only slaughter elephants and other wildlife, but they terrorize the local villagers. Now they target not only large bulls, but they kill every elephant, even tuskless bulls and cows, in order not to have to track them again another day. Elephants are on the verge of being completely eradicated and for now the remaining populations are only saved by the exceptional environment of CAR where immense areas of savannah are separated by “Bakos”, forest galleries which can be very thick and several miles in extension. The poaching gangs have even moved to the rain forest area in the west and south of the CAR, where heavy elephant poaching has been reported since 2008.
The poaching gangs use two tactics. In the savannah areas very mobile and heavily armed groups operate on horseback and with riding camels; they do not hesitate to shoot first, when they encounter real or perceived opposition. In thicker forest which is rather hostile to these savannah people, they send one or two traders with firearms, ammunitions and money into villages. The traders recruit local villagers as poachers, equip them with the necessary tools. The meat from the poached elephants remains with the villagers and the traders buy up the poached ivory. In the rain forest, elephant poaching has not reached yet such a large scale as in the northern savannah areas simply because the rain forest is a much more difficult area for poaching. The Central African Government reacted strongly in Bayanga, in the southwestern part of the country at the Congo border, sending in army units. This action assisted in considerably reducing poaching. In Bayanga, tourists can still observe herds of hundreds of elephants in the magnificent salt pan in the middle of the forest every day. But probably this success is only a respite before the next onslaught of the poaching gangs. Already last year we got very worrying reports from further west, from the hunting areas in western and southern Cameroon. In the Boubandjida Reserve and the Benoué Reserve, there has been heavy poaching with hundreds of elephant carcasses found. Unknown poachers, probably Sudanese, armed with AK47 rifles and locally recruited villagers, supplied with firearms by the poachers, do the killing, often under the closed eye and ears of the local administration.
Poaching with heavy caliber hunting rifles and Pygmy trackers always existed in the Cameroun forest, but today the scales have changed: Large groups of cash-rich ivory traffickers are out to buy and obtain ivory wherever they can find it. Even from as far as Gabon, where there was almost no elephant poaching until very recently; we receive worrying reports of strongly armed groups unknown to the forest people having moved in to poach elephants. Apparently most of the ivory is going to Sudan and from there to the Far East. We have also reports of large amounts of ivory being moved to Douala and being smuggled out of the country by diplomats from Far Eastern nations. The scale of elephant poaching is seriously worrying and there is a real risk that without immediate, concerted and decisive actions elephants in the wild will almost disappear over the huge area from Port Sudan on the Indian Ocean to Douala on the Atlantic in the next two or three years. The elephant is in gravest danger on following the rhino on a slippery slope into local extinction.