Gabon has set up brigades of eco-guards to watch over the coveted resource of its thirteen national parks. But they are little match for the arsenal deployed by poachers.
In the mud of Pongara Park, off Libreville, the tracks are still fresh. No doubt the elephants have been there. Recently, the dense forest of the park, located on the ocean, became a favorite refuge for them. For northeast, the forest elephant is constantly tracked. If it is smaller than its cousin in the savannah, its ivory is equally popular with poachers, whose merchandise is resold for high prices in Asia. Baited by this lucrative traffic, they are decimating elephants in Gabon, home to more than half of the forest elephants on the continent.
“The loss is huge,” says Christian Mbina, technical director of the National Agency of the National park (ANPN), created in 2007. “In the early 1990s, we felt that there were some 65,000 elephants in Gabon. Today, there are about 40,000,” he says, acknowledging the difficulty of conducting censuses. To fight against this organized slaughter the agency was magnified. At its inception, ANPN had a handful of employees. Today they are nearly 800. Among them, 600 people were mobilized to safeguard the thirteen parks and fight against poaching.
Understaffed and Violence
This is a daunting task, given the nearly three million hectares to monitor. “To be truly effective, we should be three times as many. Our men are overworked,” admits Christian Mbina. And it is not Joseph Okouyi, curator of Tridom parks, in the northeast of the country, who says otherwise: “The political will is there. But on the ground, it does not follow, and our work becomes dangerous.”
This biologist’s impressive stature is demonstrated by a gunshot wound in late November, as military mobilized alongside ecoguards of ANPN Minkébé in the park, the first since their deployment. The man was repatriated and operated in Libreville, his days are not in danger. “But it has played a little: he was hit in the leg by a weapon of war, Kalashnikov-type,” said Joseph Okouyi ton.
In the north and east of the country, porous borders facilitate the illegal movement of miners, attracted by the wealth of the Gabonese forest, from ivory to sometimes waterlogged basement diamonds. Poachers come from Cameroon, Congo, or Central African, often equipped with heavy weapons scattered in conflict. An unequal power relationship: Minkébé in the face of these poachers: the agency has available a hundred men, mostly unarmed. So after the injury of the Gabonese military, anger is rising a notch in ecoguards. Some are now calling for “armed struggle” and additional resources.
Funds dry up, despite the ear that Ali Bongo Ondimba lends to Lee White, Executive Secretary of ANPN. The significant fall in oil revenues came encumber the agency’s budget; a situation that worries special presidential adviser on environmental issues, American Mike Fay. “We struggle every day to keep the budget of ANPN, but it is clear that we need to find international donors.”
Meanwhile, a special tribunal to punish wildlife crimes was established. At its head is the former prosecutor of the Republic, Sidonie Flore ouwe, nicknamed the “Iron Lady” of Gabon. If the initiative has been welcomed by NGOs, most deplore the low prison sentences for wildlife trafficking. “Today, a poacher incurs up to six months of detention,” growls Luc Mathot, president of the NGO Conservation Justice. A sentence dwarfed by their lucrative trade.