According to the Cameroon Tribune, a government newspaper, the military made several patrols following reports of gunfire and men on horseback searching for elephants.
They found ten elephant carcasses, of which eight were missing their tusks.
While searching for the culprits a week or so later, Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) clashed with a gang of heavily armed poachers. Following the firefight, the poachers retreated, leaving behind four tusks, ammunition, and four horses.
Security in the area is precarious, and it’s as yet unknown if there are additional carcasses.
“We don’t know precisely what happened,” said Paul Bour, the park lodge manager. “We’re unable to go there to see firsthand because it’s too dangerous.”
Many Questions, Few Answers
While extra patrols and flights were organized to find the poachers, or possibly more carcasses, there has been no news on whether anyone has been apprehended or any additional evidence found.
Even under the best of circumstances, searching for poachers in Bouba Ndjida National Park is a challenge: It encompasses a huge area—850 square miles (2,200 square kilometers)—and they can easily hide in the bush or blend in with herdsmen.
Cooperation from the local population has been mixed. According to a Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife’s Regional Control Brigade report on the investigation of the incident, villagers may be helping the poachers because elephants sometimes destroy their fields.
The park’s border with Chad also means that poachers can flee where Cameroonian authorities can’t follow. Its proximity to chaos-ridden Central African Republic (CAR) also causes problems, because poaching gangs freely traverse that country.
Origin of the Poachers
It’s likely that the ammunition, horses, and other belongings recovered by BIR during their mid-January confrontation can provide clues about the origin of the poachers. While rumors persist that Sudanese horsemen may be responsible, nothing has been released to confirm that.
Sudanese horsemen have been involved in numerous other incidents in the region, including the slaughter of hundreds of elephants in Bouba Ndjida in 2012. No arrests have been made.
According to Ivory’s Curse: The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa, ammunition recovered from the 2012 Bouba Ndjida elephant kills directly ties those ivory hunters with the Sudanese government.
Similarly, a range of forensic evidence, including shell casings from the killing of 26 elephants in the CAR’s Dzanga Bai in 2013, points to Sudanese poachers. And the horses recovered by Chadian forces following the 2012 slaughter of 63 elephants in the Mayo Lemie and Chari Baguirmi regions indicate that the culprits were Sudanese.
For years, Sudanese poachers have been supported by networks that can be traced back to Darfur and from there to Khartoum.
“They’re responsible for the destruction of the elephant population in the east CAR-Darfur-north DRC border area,” said Omer Barak, intelligence analyst for Maisha Consulting, a security firm that specializes in environmental crime and wildlife protection. “And they’ve extended their reach and lethality.”
How to Prevent Long-Range Incursions
If Sudan is the launching point, the poachers must travel substantial distances across more than one country. The long-range nature of these incursions presents an opportunity for early warning.
“If we know these guys are going across the CAR and Chad, we could try to create an early warning system,” said Nir Kalron, the founder of Maisha Consulting, who often works in central Africa.
“Although it’s a complex operation, controls could be put in place in national parks, at border posts, and choke points to alert anti-poaching teams or stop them along the way.”
A system for better monitoring has been established in the Dzanga-Sangha reserve, which includes Dzanga-Ndoki National Park and is located in southwestern CAR.
In May 2013, poachers killed 26 elephants in Dzanga Bai, a large clearing surrounded by dense rain forest where herds of elephants gather for the mineral salts and where wildlife biologists have studied for 20 years.
Given the chaos in the country at that time, the situation could have been much worse. But local rebel groups signed an accord to maintain the security of the park, and early warning monitoring systems were put in place.
The system is working: There have been no more incursions, and the elephant population has remained stable.
Such controls have also been set up with good results in Chad’s Zakouma National Park, despite its being in a conflict-ridden zone, with Darfur to the east and CAR to the south.
Severe poaching had decimated the park’s elephants: The population plummeted from more than 4,000 in 2006 to roughly 450 in 2011.
But since then, strong anti-poaching teams—combined with an involved local community and a government committed to elephant protection—have helped prevent incursions there.
The Bouba Ndjida killings have activated surveillance networks across Chad.
“Even though this poaching incident occurred hundreds of miles from Zakouma, it is still of great concern to us due to the ability of these horsemen to move long distances quickly,” said Zakouma National Park’s manager, Rian Labuschagne.
Labuschagne works for African Parks, a non-profit organization that runs national parks in seven countries in partnership with governments and local communities.
“We have a widely spread information gathering system around the park,” he said, “and they have all been alerted of this potential threat to Zakouma’s elephants.”
According to Stephanie Vergniault, of SOS Elephants in Chad, a non-profit organization that works with local communities and anti-poaching task forces to conserve elephants, in January warnings that the poachers had headed across the border toward Chad’s Sena Oura National Park prompted the government to send soldiers and its mobile brigade into the area and put out an alert. A reward was also offered for information about the poachers.
Days of searching produced no results. Vergniault believes poachers might have left the area because they had been warned by some accomplices in the villages.
A few days later, however, six elephants were killed in the department of Logone Oriental, close to the border with CAR, orphaning a baby elephant who later died.
A Fight on Many Fronts
Across central Africa, remote border parks containing high-value natural resources like elephants have provided safe havens for insurgents and professional poachers.
Now, poachers are starting to find it harder to operate, as governments respond to the presence of these organized militias with their best units.
Zakouma and Dzanga Sangha are closed to poachers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Garamba National Park, which was severely affected by poaching and the involvement of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a multipronged approach is stabilizing the situation and making rapid response possible.
More resources are being thrown into the fight against the organized criminal gangs operating across central Africa, which according to a study coordinated by Wildlife Conservation Society has lost more than 60 percent of its forest elephants since 2002. It’s impossible to say exactly how many elephants remain—estimates vary and are unreliable—but there may now be as few as 40,000.
Several significant hauls of ivory have been seized in the region in recent months: 187 tusks in Cameroon, 278 pounds (126 kilograms) in the Republic of Congo, and 242 pounds (110 kilograms) in Gabon.
“These seizures have exposed the scale of the poaching and trafficking in the region, while also showing that concerted efforts can start to tackle these very serious crimes and give forest elephant populations a chance,” said Marc Languy, World Wildlife Fund’s conservation director in central Africa.
“But more needs to be done. The authorities must back up their enhanced anti-poaching efforts and law enforcement work by ensuring that wildlife criminals face justice.”
According to WWF, in CAR more than half the wildlife cases that enter the legal system suffer corrupt attempts to undermine them. And in Cameroon, from July 2013 to August 2014, of six of seven ivory traffickers sentenced to jail were given penalties that didn’t meet the minimum legal requirement of one year behind bars. Three were released before completing their sentences.
In Cameroon, the continued presence of BIR in the park and the discovery of many fewer dead elephants so far this year, compared to the hundreds uncovered in 2012, provide some hope.
But authorities and others in the area have expressed concern that, considering how much automatic firing was heard in several park sectors, many more elephants could already be dead and not yet found.
The coming weeks will likely see several fact-finding missions, and an aerial survey is planned for February.
Political Will Needed
In March 2013, following the massive elephant slaughters in Cameroon, Chad, and CAR, the three governments adopted an Extreme Emergency Anti-Poaching Plan.
The plan called for mobilizing military forces in Chad and Cameroon to support anti-poaching brigades, establishing ways to share and analyze information across borders in real time, and raising the penalties for poaching and illegal ivory trading to the levels of those for organized transnational crimes.
And yet, said Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s director for France and francophone Africa, “This new incursion raises the question of political will to consider elephant poaching as a serious crime.”
She also questions whether real progress has been made in carrying out the plan.
Equally worrisome is the possibility that poachers may be using these killings as a probe to test the response.
“It says we’re still weak,” warned Richard Ruggiero, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chief of International Conservation. “Without sufficient and appropriate natural resource governance and management, high value natural resources will be exploited unlawfully for the benefit of insurgents, militias, and other organized groups.
“Until the world wakes up,” Ruggiero said, there “will be a continuing death spiral” for elephants.