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So far three electric barriers have been built but dozens more are required, Professor Lee White, the British-born director of Gabon´s national parks agency (ANPN), told AFP.
“I want 500 barriers,” said White to emphasise that others methods had failed to stop the huge animals from trampling over villagers’ fields in the West African country.
“We have already tried putting up chilli and even bee hives (to protect farming areas) but all these methods did not work,” said White, who has been compared to Tarzan by the magazine National Geographic due to his work in the jungle.
Huge efforts have been made to conserve Gabon’s forest elephants and the remaining rainforests of equatorial Africa that they inhabit, but people living side-by-side with the animals are upset about the destruction of their crops and economic losses.
The elephant menace
“The rural population are angry with the elephants, it is a problem that has long been neglected,” said White.
Gabon is home to over half of Africa’s forest elephants, who are highly valued by poachers because their ivory is tinged with pink and is very hard.
It is the poaching that has encouraged elephants to move closer to villages, according to White, and that has led to farmers being killed by elephants, with little compensation for the families.
In one village close to the Ogooue river and Mount Brazza in Lope national park, a new electric fence powered by solar panels is up and running, protecting a lush green plantation.
The technology has been imported from Kenya and does not come cheap: the enclosure cost about 53,000 euros, according to a fence guard.
Gabon may be a major oil producer on Africa’s west coast but the authorities have struggled to provide funds to pay for more fences, as requested by Professor White.
The ANPN will try to reduce the cost of the next barriers to around 15,000 euros, White said, and villagers have backed the idea in the hope of protecting their livelihoods.
“The food is safe, the elephants do not destroy it anymore,” said one farmer, describing how she can now safely grow her potatoes, bananas and tropical root vegetables, secure inside the fence.
Elephants under threat
The dense tropical rainforests of the Minkebe national park in northern Gabon are on the front line of a war with poachers.
Bordered by Cameroon and Congo, the Belgium-sized area has been a target for central African gangs looking to make some quick cash from Africa´s white gold.
More than 25,000 elephants in Minkebe were killed by poachers between 2004 and 2014 — around 80 percent of the park´s total forest elephant population — according to a study in February by Duke University in North Carolina.
The stark reduction in forest elephant numbers in Minkebe reflects the shocking slaughter of elephants elsewhere.
According to the first ever pan-African survey of savanna elephants last year, the Great Elephant Census, numbers of savannah elephants are estimated to be about 352,000, down from 1.3 million in 1979.
In Gabon, it is hoped that if the electrified fences initiative expands then that will help ensure villagers and their elephant neighbours can live happily beside each other.