How a two-metre-high electric fence will help elephants and humans to live in harmony (Gabon)


Laura Secorun, Evening Standard

Date Published


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It does not seem like an activity that would draw a crowd. Flanked by the unblemished beauty of one of Gabon’s national parks, a fence post is being powered into the ground. Yet a joyous crowd has gathered to cheer each time the hammerstrikes to push it deeper.

The reason why tells much about the challenges of conservation, and how the Giants Club, the elephant protection initiative supported by the Evening Standard, has been working with its partners to deliver on the pledges made at its historic inaugural summit in Kenya earlier this year.

This is the first stage of a project being implemented by Gabon’s parks agency, with Giants Club assistance, that will help ensure villagers and their elephant neighbours can live happily beside each other. Once completed, the posts will hold up the country’s first electric fence  to stop elephants from damaging villagers’ crops.

One of those applauding at Lopé National Park is Jaqueline Gnagne, the chief of the nearest village. “This will save us from going hungry,” she said. Her village used to be home to more than 100 people but now there are only a few dozen — mostly old women.

With the elephants eating all the crops, most young men have left to try to make a living in the capital, Libreville. But once the two-metre-high electric fence is up, Ms Gnagne hopes they will come back.

A few minutes down the road, signs of the voracity of the animals are everywhere. Banana trees have been ripped from the ground and fields of crops flattened. Gabon’s 45,000 elephants often wander into villages to eat manioc or banana trees, threatening the locals’ livelihoods and prompting resentment and even retaliatory killings. Locals have tried everything from banging pots to throwing powdered pepper but nothing has worked. In La Lopé, the fence is their only hope.

This matters not only for the villagers but also the elephants’ survival. Poachers, many crossing the border from Cameroon, have killed thousands of Gabon’s elephants for ivory. The Democratic Republic of Congo used to have 500,000 forest elephants but now there are only 3,000.

If in Gabon the crops grow and people can thrive, poachers will have a harder time getting local support for their activities. “We love elephants,” said Esperance Mbamba, one of the Lopé villagers. “We just want to love them at a distance.”

Gabon’s President, Ali Bongo, is a key supporter of the Giants Club and the fence project — which is being funded by his government and managed by the country’s national park’s agency, with Giants Club’s experts providing technical and logistical support. Mr Bongo, who is awaiting the results of this weekend’s presidential election, said: “Here in Gabon we are lucky to live amid some of the most beautiful forests on the planet and to share our country with one of the world’s most special creatures: the forest elephant. Yet in Gabon we also have some of the hardest-working farmers who help produce the food for our tables.

“This fence is an important step in protecting their livelihoods, while also helping protect our elephants from leaving their natural habitats. I would like to thank the Giants Club for the assistance they are providing our parks service in delivering this project for the Gabonese people.”

The electrified wire will protect land on which the villagers plant crops. The barrier will be equipped with cameras to monitor how the elephants react and ensure the measure is effective.

“This will be crucial in minimising human-wildlife conflict,” said Professor Lee White, director of the parks agency. “If we protect people’s livelihoods, they will be more likely to want to help us preserve the national park.”

The Giants Club is a pan-African conservation initiative uniting Gabon, Kenya, Uganda and Botswana. Its patron is Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev. In recent months it has started to fulfil its commitment to help stop poachers and ensure elephants and their habitats thrive.

It follows the summit held in Kenya in April, hosted by the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, which generated pledges of $5 million and coincided with the country burning the entirety of its ivory stocks.

The summit and burn generated a focus on the plight of the African elephant which reached a global media audience of 853 million people. In Kenya in June, construction started on the 163km Laikipia electric fence, supported by the Leopardess Foundation and the British Army.

In Botswana, the Giants Club is working with the local Tlhokomela Trust to increase the penalties for poaching, while Uganda is about to unveil a new set of judicial guidelines developed with the club’s legal chief to increase conviction rates for wildlife crime.

Plans are being made to stage the next Giants Club event next year. The club is working with the Ugandan government to develop an investment scheme for its protected conservation areas, and a global forum will take place in Uganda in the spring.

“It is quite unprecedented to see action being taken so quickly,” said Max Graham, chief executive of Space for Giants, the implementation charity of the Giants Club. “But we have to act fast and deliver on the summit’s pledges immediately if the elephants are to be saved, and the landscapes they depend on protected.”