The Giants Club: On the Frontline of the Deadly Battle in Gabon Against Ivory Poachers


Alex Dymoke, Evening Standard

Date Published


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Killing a poacher for the first time was traumatic for all involved, says Joseph Okouyi, senior wildlife warden at Minkebe national park.

“My men returned fire and hit the poacher, killing him instantly. They didn’t know what to do,” he adds.

In the rush to escape they failed to bury the body, an omission that proved unsettling in the week that followed.

Twelve days later, fearing a bad omen, Mr Okouyi and his men ventured back into the forest in north-east Gabon to retrieve the corpse.

The journey was arduous, and the smell, when they got there, even worse, but it was a relief to do the right thing.

“We had to return the body to his family,” says Mr Okouyi. “He is a human. He needs a good sleep.”

Minkebe national park is the front line in Gabon’s escalating war with poachers.

Bordered by Cameroon to the north and Congo to the east, the Belgium-sized expanse of pristine rainforest is an easy target for central African gangs looking to make a quick buck from Africa’s white gold.

Gabon has about 40,000 forest elephants — roughly half the world’s population — a large proportion of which live in Minkebe.

But what was once a haven for the sub-species has, for 15 years, been a site of mass slaughter. From 2002 to 2011, poachers ran amok in the park.

Beyond the reach of the authorities, a camp of 7,000 people trading ivory, gold, prostitutes and drugs sprung up amid soaring gold and ivory prices, the latter reaching a high of $240 a kilo.

By the time Gabonese paratroopers razed the camp in 2011, 75 per cent of Minkebe’s elephants were dead.

A permanent battalion of 100 eco-guards and soldiers now patrol  Minkebe, but poachers have returned, crossing from Cameroon in smaller groups of 10 to 50.

For six months clashes have increased in frequency and intensity as poachers embraced a new tactic: shooting at eco-guards on sight.

“It’s worse than ever,” says Professor Lee White, the British-born director of Gabon’s national parks agency (ANPN). “In the past, poachers would drop their weapons and run. But recently they’ve been shooting at my men at the first opportunity.”

Ivory poaching is an increasingly serious issue across Africa. In the past 10 years, international criminal poaching gangs have been responsible for the loss of 70 per cent of forest elephants in central Africa.

My country of Gabon has been more successful than others at clamping down on the poachers, but between 2004 and 2012 we lost more than 10,000 elephants from our biggest herd.

Unfortunately, the damage done by poachers is much more far-reaching than the brutal murder of these majestic animals. The people who profit from this barbaric trade are as happy to traffic people, guns or drugs as they are ivory — so it is a matter of national security as well. These organised gangs also do deep damage to rural communities  across Africa.

Fleeing hunters, elephants seek refuge in nearby villages, where they eat and destroy people’s crops and terrify rural populations.

As a leader committed to creating equal chances for my people, I am determined to stamp out poaching.

African countries are taking important steps to end poaching, but as the criminal trade relies on an international demand for ivory, we need support from governments and businesses across the world.

Britain has already played a leading role — in 2014 the Government and their Royal Highnesses Prince Charles, William and Harry hosted a summit on wildlife crime that led to the establishment of the Elephant Protection Initiative.

We must build on this success and unite to ensure the elephant has a safe future in Africa.

The escalation is driven partly by improvements in the ranger force.

With training from the British and US armies, ANPN guards have never been so effective at tracking and apprehending poachers.

But it’s also down to pressure piled on hunters, usually poor members of the persecuted baka pygmy minority, by ruthless and brutal paymasters operating out of a military base in Djoum, just over the Cameroon border.

Professor White says: “Around six months ago the risk of being arrested, having guns and ivory confiscated and eventually being deported back into the clutches of the Cameroon poaching gangs started to outweigh the risk of shooting at my men.”

Last November a soldier with an eco-guard patrol was shot in the shin by a poacher armed with a Kalashnikov. The bullet exploded his bone and he had to travel three days through the forest to reach an area where a helicopter could get him out.

Minkebe’s remote location is one of the greatest challenges for ANPN staff.

Intensive logging right up to the Gabonese border means Cameroonian poachers have easy access to northern regions of the park, while Professor White’s men must hike or travel by boat for four days.

The helicopter is expensive, and must be used sparingly.

Despite these challenges, Gabon is committed to protecting its elephants.

Since succeeding his father in 2009, President Ali Bongo has prioritised the modernisation of Gabon’s national parks.

When Professor White took over ANPN the same year, it had no vehicles and only 60 staff controlling 13 national parks and three million hectares. It now employs 700 and has a budget of almost $20 million, which pays for military training, weapons and vehicles.

To further emphasise his commitment to saving Africa’s elephants, President Bongo last year signed up to the Giants Club, the protection initiative backed by the Evening Standard.

On April 29-30, he will join fellow African heads of state, business leaders and conservationists at the inaugural Giants Club Summit to drive protection measures and work out a co-operative framework to deal with the poaching crisis.

If the situation in Gabon worsens, Mr Okouyi worries he will have to bury one of his own men. “If we carry on this way, I do fear one of our men will be killed. Take the incident in November — if the bullet hit him in the chest, he definitely would have died.”