Cameroon elephant tragedy: on the road to BoubaNjida
Yaoundé, February 27th - 29th, 2012. Julie Landry, communications manager at the Internatioanl Fund for Animal Welfare France, and myself have just landed in Yaoundé, holding in our hands the Feb. 27th issue of the French daily Libération carrying the lurid headline "Large-scale massacre in Cameroon", with the accompanying picture of an elephant whose trunk and tusks have been cut off. IFAW is cited in this article … with good reason for that!
Back in mid-February, together with Paul Bour, our contact on the ground, we denounced a heinous crime: the slaughtering of hundreds of elephants, which has been ongoing for several weeks in BoubaNjida Park and met with indifference by a Cameroonian ruling class well-aware of the situation. The media have since taken on the issue and the entire world has been ratcheting up the pressure. The BoubaNjida case has rapidly escalated into an affair of state. Within five days, IFAW launched a mission in the area to document this tragedy and fly over the park in an attempt to assess the number of elephants killed. A TV crew of France 2 (Jean-Sébastien Desbordes and Alexandre Paré) is also making the trip as part of their documentary on ivory trade.
Except for a pervasive Asian presence, Yaoundé, the "town of the seven hills", hasn't changed. The place is still hectic, colorful and noisy. Roads are congested 18 hours a day. Julie and I are headed to the Ministry of Forests and Wildlife (MINFOF) in order to give both the Wildlife and Protected Areas manager (M. Tabi Phili Tako-Eta) and the Secretary General of the Minister (Mr Koulagna Koutou) an outline of our mission's objectives. What is at stake in BoubaNjida is the exact replay of what Chad went through some years ago, before President Idriss Deby went to war with poachers. As emergency measures need to be taken, we are discussing the military response which the Minister of Forests and Wildlife and his Defense counterpart are to set in motion, as requested by the head of state Paul Biya. We patiently listen to claims of a lack of resources seeking to justify the authorities' silence and inaction over the past few weeks and soon realize that no action would have been taken if it weren't for growing pressure from the world's media. IFAW has effectively forced politicians to put aside their reservations and act. A first step is achieved. We're now taking off to Garoua.
Garoua, March 1st - 3rd, 2012: It has been over twelve years since I left Garoua, my adopted town in Northern Cameroon with its distinctive wilderness of dry landscape and swelteringly hot weather. For two years I studied sub-Saharan fauna and flora as well as the fight against poaching at the Garoua Wildlife School (EFG).
Together with Julie and the France 2 TV crew, I am now returning to this school on an emotionally-charged journey back to my roots. Paul Bour, our contact who is also the manager of BoubaNjida's Safari Lodge, joins us there to discuss the military operation undertaken by the government. 300 Rapid Reaction Battalion (Bataillon d’intervention rapide BIR) elite soldiers habitually pitted against road blockers will be deployed in the area as of March 2nd, which will also mark the launch of both our observation work and the process of counting elephant carcasses in the area.
In order to ensure the mission's safety, IFAW meets with the Governor of the Northern Province and the BIR's General in charge of planning the military operation. Before long, it becomes apparent from the discussions that no sustainable anti-poaching strategy has actually been devised and implemented. The resource persons have not been contacted. The operation turns out to be nothing more than lip service meant to assuage the international community's concern. Observers aren't welcome here and IFAW has been threatened with having its plane taken down if it didn't call off flying over the BoubaNjida national park.
Not taking too much into consideration the attempts at intimidation, we are primarily concerned about the passive tactic of deterrence contemplated by the BIR as a way to secure the BoubaNjida Park. The presence of soldiers in the park and the helicopter overhead should suffice to scare the poachers away to their rear base, thought by the BIR command to be located in Chad.
Once in the BoubaNjida Park, IFAW will be able to witness the tactic's failure first-hand.