As poachers fired on forest elephants inside the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Central African Republic (CAR), the impotence of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations in preventing the slaughter of wildlife amid political chaos was, once again, revealed.
Earlier this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that on May 6 a group of 17 heavily armed poachers, who presented themselves as part of the transitional Séléka government but were of Sudanese origin, entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.
They then headed to Dzanga Bai, a large clearing where between 50 and 200 elephants gather at any given time during the day and night for the mineral salts. Ecoguards later reported that they saw these poachers fire at elephants from the observation platform used by scientists and tourists.
Located in southwestern CAR, the Dzanga-Sangha reserve (which includes the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park) is part of the Sangha River Tri-National Protected Area (TNS), which includes Nouabalé Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Lobéké National Park in Cameroon. Dzanga-Sangha is home to rare western lowland gorillas and more than 1,000 forest elephants. (This population is part of several thousand that share habitat with NNNP.)
While most World Heritage sites in elephant range states are seriously affected by poaching, the remoteness of the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, combined with on-the-ground support by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), have helped protect it from major poaching incidents. Until now.
For the past 30 years WWF, WCS, and the CAR government have collaborated on programs within the Dzanga–Sangha protected areas that both protect wildlife and support livelihoods for hundreds of local people.
For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also has supported efforts in the park, including funding research on the forest elephants that use Dzanga Bai.
Dozens of Elephants Dead
Following the retreat of poachers on the evening of May 8, ecoguards explored Dzanga Bai the next day and found more than 26 elephant carcasses: 20 adults and four youngsters in the clearing itself and two in the river nearby. All their tusks had been hacked off.
An assessment of additional damage, possibly including other elephant carcasses in the surrounding forest and smaller clearings, is ongoing. It is reported that at least one of the camps in the park has been ransacked.
The violent incursion took conservationists by surprise. Months earlier, groups of poachers originating from Sudan, who were killing elephants in the Ngotto forest (some 60 miles from Dzanga Sangha), had been successfully blocked from advancing toward Dzanga-Sangha by government troops supported by WWF.
WWF staff in the area thought the poachers had left the region and started their trek back to Sudan in order to beat river levels rising in the rains; their donkeys and camels would be unable to cross the swollen rivers.
While lawlessness in the area had increased over the last two months—rebels repeatedly pillaged park headquarters and WWF offices, and there had been some local elephant poaching—nobody was ready for the methodical attack.
Since 2010, poachers had sought the Dzanga Bai elephant clearing, but conservationists had managed to prevent them from reaching it.
“We didn’t expect to find our worst nightmare: the most experienced elephant killers of these parts of Central Africa,” said Bas Huijbregts, who leads the Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign for WWF in Central Africa.
“With our staff evacuated after the pillaging,” Huijbregts said, “our main priority was maintaining a minimum protection presence to stop local poachers from going on a rampage in the park while continuing to try to mobilize reinforcements from central government troops in Bangui. We were not prepared for this.”
Who Are the Poachers?
Who are the poachers? The answer is unclear. The vehicle carrying the group into the park was branded as Séléka. The poachers did not speak the local language or French.
“We understand that these Sudanese poachers came with a mission order from Séléka powers in Bangui,” Huijbregts said.
In March, Séléka, which means “union” in the local Sango language and is an alliance of seven opposition groups, finally ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Chaos has reigned since then.
There have been many reports of looting, rapes, killings, and other human rights abuses since the takeover. On April 29, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing strong concern about the worsening humanitarian and security situation and the weakening of CAR institutions.
The Séléka-dominated government is having a very difficult time establishing control over the country. There are many fighters who report to no one, and many splinter groups, who refer to themselves as Séléka but who may or may not be part of the “official” alliance. It seems that each of the seven members of the alliance has its own chief of staff and armed fighters.
One such subsidiary of Séléka is currently stationed in Bayanga, a town near the park, where they’re in charge of protecting Chinese diamond prospectors. Unlike previous groups who sacked the region, these men are reportedly well-disciplined. They have helped reestablish some rule of law and have had meetings with local authorities and ecoguards.
On Wednesday, this subsidiary delivered a message to the poachers in the park from the Séléka leadership in Bangui asking them to leave the park immediately and report to the Bayanga-based Séléka.
It appears that the poachers obeyed. According to WWF, by the evening of May 8, they had left the park with their truck fully loaded with ivory.
Since the shooting, WWF reports that no elephants have been seen in the area.
What Is Happening Now?
The CAR ministry of environment in Bangui was expected imminently to announce a mission to secure the area in and around the Dzanga-Sangha protected areas. But when that announcement will be made, what such a mission would be, and who would be involved is unclear.
It would likely be made up of agents from the ministry of environment, plus some compilation of other forces. These could include members from one or more of the seven groups that make up Séléka and perhaps some of the official armed forces, who reportedly have little or no weapons or equipment.
As of May 10, most of the park’s 42 ecoguards are back at their posts—watching and waiting.
“We’re at war right now, and it’s foggy,” explains Richard Ruggiero, Chief, Branch of Asia and Africa at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ruggiero has worked on the ground in Central Africa for over 20 years. “The possibility exists that we can turn this around in the very near future.”
Indeed, it’s not the first time conservationists have faced this situation. In 1997, rebels threatened to wipe out elephant herds in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and a group of dedicated conservationists and government rangers successfully prevented it.
“We are considering all options,” Huijbregts said. “We urge the government in Bangui to send the support troops to the area that were promised almost two weeks ago. In the meantime, we continue to support the local rangers, who, against all odds, are still doing their job.”
The Greater Malady
Whatever actions are taken to resolve this crisis, the larger issue is the underlying incentive for the elephant poaching: high demand and high ivory prices.
“What we’re seeing in Dzanga-Sangha is a symptom of a greater malady,” Ruggiero said. “The malady is human selfishness and ignorance that produces the market that causes all of this demand. We’re seeing the symptoms being played out in CAR. The disease is greater and comes from elsewhere.”
“At the end of the day, one of two things will end poaching,” Huijbregts added. “Either there is no more demand, or there are no more elephants. The choice is up to us.”