On a Quest to Save the World’s Most Elusive Elephants (Gabon)


Taylor Mayol, OZY

Date Published


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As a field biologist, Lee White had spent years traversing some of West Africa’s most obscure rain forests, cataloging flora and tracking groups of chimps and gorillas. But all the while, he was hoping for a glimpse of something else: the rare forest elephants of the region.

Smaller than the giant elephants we know, these pachyderms are famously elusive loners that prefer the cover of shaded forests to the open plains. But their ranks are dwindling, and today they’re found only in a few West and Central African countries. They’re so difficult to spot that scientists count them by tracking their dung. Indeed, White had never come closer to them than their excrement until he arrived in Gabon in 1989. Armed with his trusty binoculars and GPS, he drove into the dense Gabonese forest, and within 10 minutes of maneuvering through the foliage, he spotted one: a female forest elephant, with its long, downward-pointing tusks and distinctive oval ears. The majestic creature was as surprised as White — she charged his car.

White was hooked. Gabon, he decided, was a “paradise for biologists.” Much has happened in the 27 years since that first fateful encounter. Once a mere science geek, White is now a modern-day conservationist — armed, and a sworn officer of the state in charge of military police whose sole goal is to protect these gentle giants.

White, 51, is in title Gabon’s director of national parks; in practice, he’s part scientist, part government official and part tourist impresario. He’s a zoological adventurer tasked with creating a business rationale for protecting Gabon’s wildlife, which means wooing travelers, playing politics and facing down poachers. So far, he’s been able to “implement a vision … which has made Gabon one of the stellar conservation stories in Africa,” says John G. Robinson, executive vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Having someone with his skills and capabilities is a real bonus for the country.”

White’s is a major challenge. Elephant populations worldwide are plummeting, thanks to a cruel and profitable ivory trade operated by sophisticated global criminal networks. Of the 470,000 elephants remaining in Africa, around 90,000 are forest elephants. More than half of those live in Gabon. And they’re in even greater peril than previously thought: They reproduce three times more slowly than their savanna-dwelling counterparts, according to research published last month. It could take a century for their populations to recover from sustained poaching losses. Extinction is not unthinkable.

Efforts to save these small-statured elephants are not unlike those required to save the rest of the environment. Forest elephants and their habitats are vital to maintaining the delicate balance of the planet’s ecosystems; a vast majority of the rain forest trees’ seeds will only germinate after passing through a forest elephant’s digestive tract. Tropical forests sustain a greater diversity of wildlife than any other environment — some 80 percent of documented species — and Gabon’s forests are part of one of the most critical systems: the Congo Basin, Africa’s Amazon.

The vast majority of equatorial forests — vital carbon dioxide sinks — are found in the developing world, where competing priorities like poverty reduction and economic growth often outshine conservation. White’s endeavor to change the landscape of conservation in Gabon exemplifies what is required to reorient a country around conservation: the convergence of science nerds, international funders, internal politics and armed forces. Already, Gabon is showing that the conservation payoff might be worth the price, perhaps enticing other developing countries to follow suit. After all, it’s the world’s least developed countries that will bear the brunt of climate change, stand to gain the most from conservation and may be least likely to tackle the challenge, knowing the cost.

Gabon, a tiny nation sandwiched between Congo and the Atlantic, is jam-packed with rich zoological and botanical biodiversity. Some 88 percent of the country is covered in pristine rain forests, and in addition to shy elephants, is home to 35,000 chimps, 20,000 gorillas and groups of 1,000 mandrills (Rafiki from The Lion King) — found virtually nowhere else on earth, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Rwanda, by contrast, where Jane Goodall called home, is renowned for its gorilla population … of fewer than 900. And Gabon has the ocean too. A fifth of the world’s humpback whales pass the shoreline, and “it’s the only country in the world where elephants, crocodiles and hippos walk along the beach” together, says White.

The overcrowded rain forests make for a field biologist’s dream. White, for a long time more hard-core scientist than public-facing conservationist, completed many of the first national forest surveys himself. In the savanna, biologists count animals by car or overhead by plane, but Gabon’s forests are so dense in parts that one must trek on foot. And some animals, like pangolins and duikers, are seen only after dark. “If you’re feeling brave, you go out on a transect at night,” says White. It’s a bit like “swimming in murky water” while toting gear and wearing headlamps.

One night, he accidentally stumbled upon a group of sleeping gorillas and startled them awake. Suddenly, a gorilla charged him from behind, “screaming” at the top of its voice. It was so dark the gorilla missed White by a meter — he would’ve been crushed to death — and kept running and yelling until White was left surrounded by only an eerie silence.


Some melodrama is required to save animals and land that many would rather not spend resources on. There are those like British-born White, who play the political theater by canoodling up to the cradles of power — White has befriended President Ali Bongo Ondimba, whose recent re-election has been mired in allegations of fraud, and was responsible for convincing Ali’s late father, who ruled Gabon for three decades, of the necessity of conservation. In 2002, White joined forces with National Geographicexplorer J. Michael Fay, who had just spent three years walking more than 2,000 miles from Congo through Gabon to raise global awareness about conservation. The two men presented Bongo the elder with Fay’s photos and White’s forest surveys. On the spot, White says, the leader created 13 national parks; White promised he’d find a way to match whatever money the government put toward them.

In principle, convincing the government of an economically stratified nation to spend money on elephants should not be easy. But over the 18 years White was country director for Wildlife Conservation Society, he grew increasingly close with the government of Bongo the elder. “He was actually playing both sides of the fence, if you will,” says Robinson. Not every conservationist would take the same tack, especially while deploying large amounts of funding from donors like the United States. Eventually, White chose the government. Today, White’s as much a presidential adviser as an employee. (Representatives of the president’s office did not comment, citing Gabon’s electoral crisis.) Perhaps cozying up to a potential dictator-in-the-making is the price to pay for conservation success.

When Bongo introduces White at events, he calls him the “White Bantu,” jokingly — White has been a Gabonese citizen for a decade. “Lee’s turned out to be a skilled politician,” says Marie-Claire Paiz, Gabon country director for The Nature Conservancy. “Yes, he’s very close to the president, and he’s able to build trust with the highest leaders of power in the country. But also, he’s a trained scientist who understands the scientific realities and the ecology.” That, she says, makes him credible.

It’s almost as if White were groomed to play the continent’s politics. His father, a university professor, moved the family to Uganda when White was 3. Little White grew up fighting with then-president Idi Amin’s son in school — “I’m gonna tell my dad to kill your dad” was young Amin’s favorite threat, according to White. Outside the classroom, he became intimate with wildlife. His mom even adopted a chimpanzee — White remembers her carrying his younger sister in nappies on one hip and the chimp on the other. But the family’s time in East Africa was cut short when Amin’s Uganda became “too crazy,” White says. He was 9.

White didn’t stay away from Africa for long. With high school diploma in hand, he took a low-paying job heading up primate conservation on a tiny river island in Sierra Leone. White’s work helped turn that island into a community preserve that still exists. But being a scientist at heart, White pursued a zoology degree from the University of London, then a Ph.D. with a focus on tropical ecology, with fieldwork in Gabon. Between degrees he spent time in Nigeria, where he rediscovered a species of monkey that scientists thought was extinct and helped create the Okomu and Cross River National Parks. He remembers spending the weeks arresting poachers with the Nigerian police in the forest and the weekends listening to jazz at Fela Kuti’s club in Lagos. For White, those years in Africa weren’t time abroad; he was at home. When asked, he says he feels more African than anything else.

His vision for his new home country is to use the national parks to make Gabon a luxury vacation destination, placing it in the fray with the safari worlds of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. His goals, set by the government, are lofty: 10,000 tourists by Year 5 and 100,000 in 15 years. (Still far behind Kenya’s 1.2 million visitors to 100 lodges, but a moonshot for a country that saw barely a thousand foreign tourists last year.) Part of Gabon’s challenge is playing catch-up — French colonialists didn’t emphasize conservation the way the Brits did, and the schism lingers. Beyond language and science, White’s mission requires him to woo the world’s top luxury tour operators and lodges, which would grow Gabon’s nascent tour industry to international class standards. So far, he’s signed two companies to open nine hotels and lodges. Today the country’s accommodations are run in an “amateurish way,” he says, with attendants sometimes forgetting to stock the bar with beer, wine and liquor.

But none of that matters — not his home, not the cushiest of cabins for his guests, not even the political instability in Gabon — unless the elephants themselves have a home. And that is far from guaranteed.


Whenever White’s phone rings, he looks to see if the caller’s number starts with 8816 — the code that demarcates a satellite phone — which could be terrible news. His breath catches in his chest. Someone may have died — a ranger, a poacher or yet another elephant.

Poachers used to retreat when park rangers arrived on a scene, but these days, he says they shoot Kalashnikovs and .458 rifles on sight. Earlier this year, White got the call: A ranger was shot in the lower leg in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park, where some 20,000 elephants have been killed in the last 15 years. He managed to get a helicopter into the remote forest, but it landed in a swamp and half sank. Eventually they flew the man to safety and he recovered, after nearly bleeding to death. “I feel often like I’ve fallen into a James Bond film,” White says.

To combat this increasingly armed and sophisticated threat, White is developing a force of highly trained rangers with help from U.S. Marines and British special forces — who care enough to help with training because money from ivory fuels armed conflict and other illicit trades. The so-called eco-guards often face off against poachers hired by the Cameroonian military, according to White. If true, there’s a cruel irony at work: The United States, after all, is backing the Cameroonian military in its fight against Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. White’s frustration is palpable. Sometimes the poachers aren’t what you’d expect: Two years ago, White was in Minkébé when park rangers arrested a young Pygmy boy, who looked about 12. The kid said he’d been kidnapped-slash-hired (the line is not always clear) from a school in southern Cameroon by people from the local military base and made to help them with their dirty work.

“You can arrest one or 10 poachers, but for the trafficker, it’s nothing. He can recruit 20 more. So you have to arrest the trafficker,” says Luc Mathot, founder and director of Conservation Justice, a Gabon-based antipoaching enforcement organization. Which is where White’s political efficacy may come in: Gabon’s maximum jail sentence for ivory trafficking or killing wildlife is six months, compared to 10 in Burkina Faso, four in Congo-Brazzaville and life in Kenya. Just last month, Mathot and his team of undercover detectives nabbed a Gabonese forestry official with nearly 800,000 euros worth of ivory — an inside job.

The director of antipoaching within the Forestry Ministry resisted sending the man to jail. So Mathot did what he usually does, and WhatsApped White. They next day the matter was sorted and the accused went to jail. White “is close with the president so he can make pressure, so that’s how we work,” says Mathot. And yet, victory will be short-lived: After six months, the official will likely take up his government post again. White says proposed legislation would punish poaching with a minimum of four years, and up to life, in prison.

Of course, White’s job is as much about protecting people from elephants as it is protecting elephants from poachers — that tension pervades wildlife conservation efforts the world over. Why, some locals ask, spend money to save the animals when you can’t even save us? Elephant killings in the north are driving the creatures from forests into populated areas, encroaching on law-abiding Gabonese and trampling their crops. Many rural Gabonese feel they’re being punished for the deeds of foreign poachers, says White. So far, the park service installed electric fencing around vulnerable villages, but hasn’t done much else to assuage the worries of farmers.

And so, White’s elephants loomed large in the recent election. This month, White says, a mob attacked two park staff members with machetes and torched the national herbarium, filled with century-old plant specimens from around the country. The staffers survived and so did the most of the plants — White managed to relocate them to his own office.

But he still can’t shake a certain rumor, rooted in a local myth, that powerful men can transform into leopards or elephants. White has been accused of destroying crops personally … as an elephant.