Cameroon elephant tragedy: The war is declared in Bouba Njida
Bouba Njida, March 5, 2012 - It is 9:10 a.m. and we're all packed. As we have been banned from flying over the park by the General of the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR - Rapid Reaction Battalion) of the North Province, who threatened to take down our plane if we didn't comply, we choose to set off this morning. There are a number of us leaving the quietude of our Bouba Njida camp, where baboons and bushbucks have graced us with their presence every single night.
As we pack our luggage into our pickup truck, a gunshot rings out, followed by another. Within a couple of minutes, we hear over 63 shots less than 2 miles north of the camp. Everyone is transfixed, struck by the realization that the poachers we assumed had fled across the Chadian border from the RRB are here, that history is repeating itself and that elephants have just been killed by the poachers’ fire. We thought the carcasses we'd come upon over the last few days would be the last but we were sadly mistaken. Elephant blood will continue to flow in Bouba Njida.
Faces turn grave. Paul grabs his satellite phone to inform the high command of the BIR about what just took place. The soldiers, a troop of whom is stationed behind the camp, put on their gear, gather around and leave for battle with three of Paul's trackers leading the way, the same trackers who took us to the dead animals the days before, people we know and will worry about all day until they return.
The atmosphere is heavy. Silence reigns. Menace and powerlessness prove to be terrifying mix. At 10 a.m., the inevitable happens. We hear the sounds of the first skirmish between the BIR men and the poachers. Ten minutes of crossfire is a harrowing, nerve-wracking experience. The BIR helicopter Bell 412 lands on the campgrounds, asks Paul for directions to the combat zone and flies away. A war on poaching has just begun in Bouba Njida, but exactly what strategy does it pursue?
Another four-minute series of gunshots is heard at 11:05 a.m. and we know men are bound to die. Events are unfolding increasingly fast. The chopper flies away to bring in reinforcements from Rey Bouba and drops them off at 11:45 a.m. At 1:30 p.m. the BIR deploys about 20 men around our camp while the helicopter flies over our heads for several hours in an attempt to guide the BIR troops moving on the ground towards the fleeing poachers.
Paul and our team are relieved when the three trackers get back at 4:30 p.m. It is also time to take stock: one dead, two injured on the BIR side, one poacher officially reported to have died, 5 horses and a bag of ammunition seized, one bag of small ivory tusks from young animals and 8 pairs of grown tusks found. The 63 shots have been fatal to 10 elephants (2 adults and 8 young animals), whose ivory the poachers were unable to take away after the BIR spotted them. By a cruel irony, it wasn't the helicopter tasked with identifying the shooting area, but a lone baby elephant that succeeded in leading the elite BIR soldiers to his dead fellow animals. He, too, ended up dying, but from thirst and hunger.
We find ourselves at the heart of a conflict whose root cause is none other than the Asian countries' insatiable demand for ivory products, thousands of miles away from Bouba Njida.
It is 7 p.m. With heavy hearts and the sound of gunfire still echoing in our heads, we leave Bouba Njida determined to carry on our fight against this bloody and abhorrent trade by countries that decide the fate of elephants and that of the men and women putting their lives on the line to protect them. We reach Garoua at 1 a.m., devastated and overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and the conviction that buying ivory kills.
We urgently need to bring a permanent end to the trade in ivory or elephants risk being remembered as yet another species we knew how to save but didn't.