Ground Zero for Forest Elephants


Christina Russo, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic

Date Published

There’s simply no way other way to begin this story: The future for Africa’s forest elephant (Loxodonata cyclotis) is exceedingly dire.

The battle to protect this “hidden elephant” from unremitting slaughter is being lost to a more aggressive and merciless demand for the animals’ ivory.

Or as Richard Ruggiero, Africa branch chief at the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), bluntly puts it: “There will [only] be a massive decline in poaching when the market demands stop or all the elephants are gone.”

Still, despite the data and the carnage, Ruggiero—and some other conservationists—believes that there is a way for the trajectory to be slowly reversed.

“Although it’s getting very late, it’s not too late.” But, he warns, “we have exhausted all the margins for error and inaction. Every day that lapses, while we do not act in a strategic, concerted, and energetic way, we get closer and closer to the abyss.”

The Hope of Gabon

Right now Gabon is working hard to keep us from the abyss. This might come as a surprise, since Gabon is a relatively small country, about the size of the United Kingdom. Nearly 90 percent of the nation consists of rain forest, and though Gabon’s rain forests constitute only a fraction of the continent’s, they shelter close to a remarkable 60 percent of Africa’s remaining forest elephants.

If you compare the landmasses of Gabon and DRC, the latter should be the forest elephants’ stronghold by a wide margin. In 1990 DRC was thought to have between 300,000 and 400,000 elephants. Today—almost unimaginably—the number has fallen to roughly 12,000, and it’s still dropping.

Lee White, as the Executive Secretary of the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), oversees Gabon’s thirteen national parks and two other protected areas.

He took this post in late 2009, with the goal of creating “an internationally renowned national service that is able to protect its wildlife and manage [its] parks.”

The goal is ambitious, especially given the current stakes for Africa’s forest elephants. “We’ve lost up to 75 percent of all forest elephants in the last eight to ten years,” White says. “We continue to lose 10 percent of all [surviving elephants] every year. We’re fighting for the very survival of the forest elephant. Already far too many forests are silent.”

According to White, the battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon. Ruggiero, who’s has been working on behalf of elephants for more than three decades, says he agrees “100 percent.”

Gabon is now estimated to hold just 40,000 to 45,000 forest elephants. The most comprehensive report on their current numbers was a paper coauthored by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and biostatistician Samantha Strindberg, also with WCS; the study was published last year in PLOS ONE (“Devastating Decline of Forest Elephants in Central Africa”).

Two-Thirds of Forest Elephants Gone

Their study, recently updated, shows that 65 percent of Africa’s forest elephants have been killed.

The report contains other depressing facts, including that 95 percent of the forests in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are devoid of elephants; that 200,000 African forest elephants were likely lost between 2002-2013; and that the overall population is less than 10 percent of its potential size.

“We would have been delighted if there had been a slowdown of the loss,” Maisels says, “but it doesn’t look like it.”

One of the most significant long-term massacres of forest elephants has taken place in Minkebe National Park in northeast Gabon. Minkebe is considered one of, if not the most, important forest park for elephants in Africa. In 2004, the park and its surrounding buffer zone had 29,000 forest elephants. But when a survey was done again in 2012, the number had plummeted to 7,000.

What Happened?

By email from Libreville, Gabon, White wrote, “The sad reality is that upwards of 15 million conservation dollars, mostly by WWF—much from USAID—was spent in Minkebe during the poaching frenzy.”

He emphasized that the problem was that there wasn’t a coordinated, active engagement between the NGOs and the Gabon government—there was money, but no effective presence. “Unfortunately, there was not a strong partnership with the government and those [dollars] did not save the elephants. WCS and WWF helped create the parks—but this failure demonstrates clearly that unless there is strong government engagement, they cannot succeed alone.”

Exacerbating the problem, between 2002 and 2011 a gold mining camp grew rapidly inside the 2,920-square-park, bringing in 6,000 people. These people didn’t restrict themselves to mining gold.

The mining population was trafficking in ivory, as well as “illegally panning for gold…[trafficking in] bush meat, drugs, arms, prostitutes, and, although the evidence is sketchy, children who were forced to work in the mines,” White says.

Minkebe: A Wake Up Call

In 2011 Richard Ruggiero and WCS scientist and then National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence J. Michael Fay assessed the situation in Minkebe, estimating that 50 to 100 elephants were being killed daily inside the park and the buffer zone.

The information galvanized ANPN—in conjunction with the army—to close the gold mining camps, and later that year all 6,000 people were summarily moved out of the park and buffer zone. A rotating detachment of 120 soldiers is now based, semi-permanently, in the park to protect the remaining elephants.

White describes what happened in Minkebe as a “wake up” call. The situation now, he says, is much changed. “We have a strong partnership, and the government is shouldering its responsibility to protect [the elephants], which leaves the NGOs able to provide technical support on management, science, community relations and development, tourism development, etc.”

In June 2012 Gabon burned its ivory stockpile to signal its zero-tolerance policy for wildlife crime.

But have no doubt: Poaching still goes on in Minkebe and other parks in Gabon.

In July 2013, 1,148 tusks were seized in Hong Kong via Togo. According to Samuel Wasser—head of the Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington, whose goal is to identify poaching hot spots in Africa by conducting DNA tests on officially seized ivory—some of those tusks originated in the Minkebe park region in northeast Gabon.

Furthermore, Wasser says, the majority of the tusks were “very small, which suggests they were poached from young elephants. This indicates the whole region is being heavily poached.”

Who Are the Poachers?

White assesses that “most poaching in Gabon is done by foreign nationals illegally penetrating across our remote forest borders, and most traders are West African.”

More than half the poachers, he says, are Cameroonians illegally crossing into the country, often armed with .458s. Another significant group is the Congolese, who come in armed with Kalashnikovs.

Fiona Maisels explains that part of the challenge of protecting forest elephants is that “you can’t see what is going on. The poachers go into the forest, kill the elephants, hide the ivory until nighttime, and sneakily go down the river and pay off authority figures as they go. It’s not only the fact that they’re in the forest but that also the forest elephant countries—except for the honorable Gabon—have serious governance issues, and it’s easy to launder things, including transport.”

London: More Than Empty Words?

The recent London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade gives hope. Ruggiero says he “sensed a significant increase in the state of awareness and will to address the poaching and trafficking crises. [London] had more political support and a sense of urgency than I have ever seen heretofore.”

White agrees. “I think this one has potential to be different. But we will judge by the action it catalyzes, so ask me in six months.” He says that if the proposal to impose a 10-year total ivory ban becomes a reality, “We’re onto something.”

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba spoke at the conference, vowing that upon his return home he would “sign a new law making elephant poaching and trafficking a crime, raising the minimum sentence for convicted poachers to three years, and requiring a life sentence in cases involving organized crime.” (As of now, the new law has not been signed).

In a speech at the accompanying International Wildlife Trafficking Symposium at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), White detailed ANPN’s progress. The agency has almost doubled its personnel every year for the past four years. It now has 600 guards, and the hope is to expand the number to 800 by the end of 2014. (In 2009, when White was appointed, there were just 50 staffers and not a single government vehicle, and wardens had to hitchhike with NGOs to get into the parks.) About 150 poachers have been arrested in Minkebe National Park in the past two years. Significantly, the government of Gabon has increased ANPN’s budget from one million dollars to 18 million annually.

Esprit De Corps—Key to Success

White works hard to foster what he calls an “esprit de corps” for the wardens (“If your staff aren’t motivated, you’re not going to win”) by increasing salaries, offering retirement policies, and providing medical insurance for families. “We’ve made the career for an eco-guard really worthwhile,” he says.

He also says that under a joint USFWS-ANPN agreement, the U.S. government hopes to double its annual financial commitment from three million dollars to six million, and “new capacity building and training initiatives will be undertaken.”

Perhaps most important, White continues to work closely with Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba, whom he calls his greatest ally.

Gabon has worked so proactively in the past few years, White said in his ZLS speech, that the country is now considered a model for wildlife conservation in Africa.

But there’s more to be done: “We’re far from getting to the level of performance that we need to be at to deal with the problem. If we’re cited as a model, that’s because the other agencies around central Africa are so weak—and that’s why we have 58 percent of the [forest] elephants where we should have only 10 percent. Because we’ve lost them all everywhere else.”

Stain on Humanity

Writing from the frontlines in Gabon, Richard Ruggiero made an impassioned plea: “I have had the good fortune to have lived with elephants for many years, and I think I have a fairly good grip on what they are, and maybe even how they think and feel. With their demise, so will pass one of great glories of the natural world—maybe the greatest.”

Ruggiero continued: “I have called this a stain on humanity, which is putting it mildly. It would be unforgiveable. To save them from ourselves is not only biologically essential, it should be one of humankind’s greatest endeavors—an effort that would require a heroic and selfless mission.

“Does the U.K. meeting represent the beginning of this? There were people there whom I heard expressing that. Wishful thinking? I need proof, not just words and more declarations. Talking is easy, acting and succeeding are something else.

“Let’s see what comes of it,” Ruggiero concludes. “And then judge the results.”