An emergency meeting to deal with elephant massacres in Chad and Cameroon

Central African governments have met to collaborate and conduct an emergency plan to stop the mass elephant killings.  This is in the aftermath of the biggest episode of elephant poaching in 2013.  However, does the meeting not mark an effort that is just too little, and too late?

On the 14th and 15th of March, at least 86 elephants were slaughtered in Chad, near the Cameroon border.  This included over 30 pregnant females.  Even more sickeningly, the calves were then shot, or just left to die.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This image reveals the elephant carcasses that were left after the shocking and sickening massacre of March 14- 15. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This massacre, whether incidentally or accidentally, took pace during the closing hours of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference meeting, where elephants were high up on the agenda.  This massacre occurred just weeks after 28 elephant carcasses, with all their ivory tusks removed, were discovered in the Lobeke and Nki National Parks of Cameroon.  There were also at least 15 carcasses in four different locations across the Central African Republic.  These massacres all followed a number of reports of Sudanese poachers that were crossing over CAR and heading towards Chad and Cameroon.  Both the governments of Chad and Cameroon responded to this warning, but neither could find and stop the poaching gangs.

This crisis was acknowledged and a three-day emergency meeting on the poaching of elephants was held Yaounde, Cameroon from March 21 to 23.  The Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) organized the meeting.  The meeting’s participants were made up of ministers of foreign affairs, defense and wildlife protection, it also included representatives from organizations such as the SOS Elephants and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as representatives from the United Nations Development Program.

The final declaration realised that national initiatives taken to combat illegal trafficking and poaching had failed.  It emphasized that countries involved in the ivory supply chain (whether in origin, transit, or destination) need to coordinate efforts so to stop the transnational, organized crime networks operating throughout the region.  The plan was adopted in extreme urgency to combat poaching.  It includes: the mobilization of military forces in Cameroon and Chad to support the anti-poaching brigades; the exchange of intelligence regarding the movement of the poachers; a mechanism for inter-state coordination and the initiation of national coordination units; an implementation of a tripartite agreement that allows for the intervention of multi-country brigades; and criminalizing poaching and the illegal ivory trade, so that penalties equal those of organized transnational crimes.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

This is inside the CEEAC emergency meeting. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Internationally, penalties for wildlife crimes are known to be especially low.  For example, in Ireland on March 19, two rhino horn dealers were each fined $650 for smuggling eight rhinos.  The horns themselves were valued at $650 000 on the black market.

This CEEAC meeting plan realises and acts for the larger actions taken against elephant poaching, namely: the need for transnational, coordinated efforts, the need to treat elephant and other wildlife killing and the illegal trade in ivory and other wildlife parts as severe crimes; and a call for effective enforcement through prosecutions, harsher penalties, and advanced operational techniques to curb the illicit trade.

There is still a need in financing the implementation of the CEEAC emergency plan, as well as for longer-term actions.  A $2.3 million budget and timetable of actions were laid out, however, there is still an unclear status of financial commitments.  The final declaration of the meeting was for a call for the global community and other partners to come forward and offer money.

There is still lingering political instability in the CAR.  Very recently, rebels seized the capital and President Francois Bozize` fled the country.  This turmoil implies that poachers would be able to continue to roam the CAR with freedom and a sense of immunity.

There have been sightings of the Sudanese poachers from the air and from the ground.  The poachers seem to have broken into smaller groups of 10 to 15 members each, and are widely dispersed.  However, the exact locations and particular movements of the poachers in Cameroon and Chad are unconfirmed, and the reports do not seem to be entirely accurate.  The Chadian troops have already been pursuing poachers.  The Chadian President has deployed a many troops to hunt the poachers, and is determined to catch them before they leave Chadian territory.  There has been a violent and vehement exchange of gunfire between the regular army in Loumobogo, near the CAR, and groups of poachers.  The authorities have seized 30 tusks, and Chad is reportedly ready to declare a total war on the poachers.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces.  Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

These are brave troops of the Chadian anti-poaching forces. Photo courtesy of SOS Elephants.

Tens of thousands of elephants have become the victims to a storm of high ivory prices that are driven by a soaring Chinese demand.  The elephants are left to be even more vulnerable due to the low risk of traffickers getting caught, and menial penalties for those who are caught.  There is also a lack of priority at local and political levels to act seriously enough against elephant poaching.  Chad is encouragingly actively pursuing the poachers, however, the situation in the CAR and Cameroon remains less clear.  The bottom line remains as the Sudanese poachers still out there, and still relentlessly and ruthlessly hunting.

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants.  Today only 550 remain.  Image courtesy of www.nytstore.com

This picture was taken in the Zakouma National Park, which was once home to 150 000 elephants. Today only 550 remain. Image courtesy of http://www.nytstore.com

Park rangers come under the firing line trying to protect endangered species

It is not just endangered animals that face the ruthlessness of dangerous gangs and smugglers: park rangers have also come under the firing line. Heavily armed criminal syndicates and smugglers, and even rebel militia in some cases, are running the global wildlife trade. These gangs will stop at nothing, placing park rangers who are tasked with protecting these species in danger.

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A ranger who is tasked with protecting the beautiful, but isolated stretch of Savannah, in the heart of one of the poorest regions on earth

Over recent years hundreds of rangers have been killed, as poachers are relentless in their quest for lucrative animal parts such as rhino horn and ivory.  France24 reported that Sean Willmore, president of the International Ranger Federation (IRF), said that at least 1000 rangers have been killed in 35 countries over the past decade; however, he added that the true global figure could be closer to between 3000 – 5000. There seems to be war at the frontline of conservation. Willmore cited the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a group of 50 rangers came across a group of 5000 militia out poaching and armed with AK47s.

Zakouma National Park, Chad, demonstrates one example: elephant poachers shot down an entire squad of rangers. These poachers shot with a deadly precision. They crouched in the bushes from a triangle of different spots, whilst the rangers had been hunched over in prayer just before dawn. Among the freshly dug graves and empty bullet shells, the cost of protecting wildlife is horrifically clear. Ivory poaching is becoming more militarized, as rebel groups, and even government armies are slaughtering thousands of elephants across Africa. Wildlife rangers, who tend to be older, yet incredibly knowledgeable about the environment and animals, are wading through the bushes only to find hardened soldiers.

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Park rangers travel on horseback, sleep in the bush and start patrolling early in the morning

Ivory poachers seem to be becoming increasingly ruthless and reckless. Dozens of African rangers have been killed in coldblooded murder. In Zimbabwe, poachers are using deadly poison on elephant carcasses to kill the vultures. These birds serve as a natural early warning system that a kill has taken place. Therefore making it even more dangerous for rangers as they then have no idea when poachers are around.

Zakouma rangers are trying to make a last stand. The park’s once great and magnificent herd of elephants has nearly been exterminated. It is one of the most extreme declines of an elephant population in Africa, as 90% of the herd has been poached off in the last 10 years. There has only been one confirmed birth of an elephant calf in the past 2 years, as with all the shooting and stress, the elephants do not breed.

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd of Zakouma National Park

Attacks by elephants or lions do make poachers’ work dangerous enough. They also have a lack of training and equipment, and low wages weighing against them. Although, wildlife crime has always been known as a low-risk crime, with high profits. These criminals are still determined to capitalise on large animal reserves in the world’s most unstable and poorest countries, such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To worsen the situation, these groups are not only involved in wildlife crime, but also other illicit trades such as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

The countries that have faced the most damage due to wildlife trafficking are willing to tackle this issue, but they do so with limited means. However, some countries have not even made wildlife trafficking a serious crime, which makes convictions of the criminals difficult. Political commitment against the poaching needs to be accompanied and assisted by national and international resources. There must be sustainable movements against the actual poachers, but middlemen working in transit countries must also be dealt with, as well as the distributors and merchandisers in market countries. The whole corrupt network of wildlife crime needs to be taken apart. This is a very difficult task, as much of these trafficked animal products are destined for use in Asia as traditional medicines or delicacies.

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

Elephant herd in Zakouma National Park

This is an article that was featured in the New York Times, demonstrating rangers in isolated Central Africa, under the grim cost of protecting wildlife.

Elephant poachers take advantage of turmoil in Central Africa

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The African elephant is classified as endangered, and makes the ‘Red List’ of endangered species, as at least 50% of its population has been removed over the past 3 generations.  The hunting of African elephants is now banned in several countries, but the illegal poaching of these elephants for ivory is still a major threat.

The Central African Republic (CAR) is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It is known to be a nation that is constantly ravaged by coups and brutal conflict.  In December 2012 and January 2013, rebel forces threatening to overthrow government succeeded in capturing one-third of the country.  It is through this turmoil and disorder that poachers are able to capitalise.

Poachers have appeared to be freely moving in their search for elephants.  A group of up to 200 well-armed Sudanese poachers was seeing traveling across northern CAR toward Cameroon and Chad late last year.  These poachers have been traveling back-and-forth between Chad and CAR.

In CAR, the poachers were reportedly on horseback or with camels in the western parts of the county, including in the Dzangha-Sangha National Park.  Fresh elephant carcasses have been found at four separate locations; however, these killings could just be used as a sort of test to analyze the alacrity of troops and anti-poaching forces.

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Elephants (Photo credit: @NonprofitOrgs)

The European Union has funded a program called Project Ecofaune, which reported a massacre of elephants in southwestern CAR on January 30th.  On February 5th, Ecofaune reported that 24 Sudanese poachers were in the peripheral zone of a National Park, and 10 men were carelessly poaching around Ngotto, which was less than 40 miles away.  With several of them injured, the elephants had panicked and sought refuge in and around the village.  There have also been indications of the poachers becoming aggressive towards people.

The poachers have also intruded into Chad, and it seems that in both countries the village people are giving information about the elephants’ whereabouts to the poachers in exchange for meat.

The Cameroonian government has utilized its special forces military unit: the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR).  In Chad, the army has been active in pursuing the poachers, and has hounded them to the border.  However, with the disarray that is taking place in CAR, the government is seriously battling to deal with this, or any other threat, which is proving to be a severe weak link in the fight against the poaching.  The CAR government is unable to resist the rebels, and President Francois Bozize has pleaded for military assistance.  Chad has sent forces, which were soon joined by troops by South Africa and other central African countries, as well as France supporting these efforts.  The United States has reacted to the security situation by temporarily closing its embassy and evacuating its staff.  On January 11, a peace plan and cease-fire were agreed upon and President Bozize was granted to remain in power until 2016, when his term ends.  However, the Voice of America has reported that the rebels have broken this agreement and the political situation remains in a situation of unrest and instability.

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This show Chadian soldiers on patrol for poachers. Photograph courtesy of SOS Elephants

The CAR government is not under capacity to deal with the dangerous upheaval of poaching.  However, even if this capacity did in fact exist, it seems that there is a lack of political will to address the poaching situation.  After President Bozize signed the peace deal in January, he declared that he would work on strengthening ties with China, and to promote oil exploration and development.  SOS Elephants, a Chadian non-governmental organisation, has stated that the Chinese have a large role in promoting the illegal ivory trade, as Chinese nationals working for the China National Petroleum Company have been smuggling ivory through the oil pipeline project.

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A Chadian soldier pictured with the president of SOS Elephants, Stephanie Vergniault. He was shot in the leg in August 2012 while fighting poachers in the Mayo Lemie region. Photograph courtesy of SOS Elephants.

The EU Ambassador wrote a letter on January 30th to Cameroon’s prime minister where he expressed concern for the elephants being under imminent threat due to the movement of armed groups in surrounding countries.  This was in response to movement of poachers from Sudan across CAR and to then to the Chadian border.  In response to this, the Chadian President, President Idriss Déby sent military aircraft to patrol the regions under threat.  Elephant numbers have increased to around 700, whereas they were lying at just 300 at the start of 2012.  Last August, President Déby also launched an immense search that saw the capture of five poachers who were responsible for a massacre of 63 elephants in that area.  February 5th saw the arrival of 100 soldiers in five trucks ready hunt down poachers.  President Déby has a personal concern for elephant poaching, this is well known and admired.

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The Chadian army unit that is in running the anti-poaching movement. Photograph courtesy of SOS Elephants

CAR remains to be a weak link.  The poachers appear to have run towards the Cameroon away from the Chadian soldiers, however, the Cameroon has implemented anti-poaching units that are after them.  The only option left for the poachers is the CAR.

The role of government and international politics has come to take a pinnacle role regarding elephant poaching.  This case shows that the safety and wellbeing of elephant populations in Central Africa, and largely endangered animals in general, has come to depend upon the stability and diplomacy of countries, both internally and also with regard to international politics and relations.  If the atrocity of poaching is ever to be diminished, governments need to work to react quickly and firmly to illegal poaching, regardless of internal dispute.

For more information on elephant poaching in Africa and anti-poaching initiatives, you can look at Born Free and A Voice for Elephants.

I definitely recommend watching this clip, as it offers a wealth of insight into elephant poaching in the Cameroon: