Too late – military intervention fails to halt elephant slaughter in Cameroon (GRAPHIC IMAGE)
With up to 400 elephants already butchered for their ivory, soldiers were in a deadly battle with poachers last week to prevent further killing in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park.
A team from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW – www.ifaw.org) reported heavy fire between the two sides last Monday as poachers targeted a herd of elephants.
At least 63 gunshots were heard during the clash that killed 10 elephants. One poacher and one soldier were killed, and two soldiers of Cameroon’s BIR (Rapid Intervention Battalion) were injured.
“The fight against poaching is a war and like any other war there will be casualties,” says Céline Sissler Bienvenu, Director of IFAW France and in charge of projects in Francophone Africa.
Field reports said that the elephants killed were mostly young with small tusks, and that the poachers had fled without having time to remove them – later five horses, bags with ammunition and small tusks, as well as eight pairs of tusk were seized.
IFAW visited the park last week to assess an unprecedented killing spree that has taken the lives of hundreds of elephants since mid-January.
Sissler Bienvenu said it seemed that Cameroon’s soldiers were no match for the heavily armed poachers who have been active in Bouba Ndjida National Park in remote northern Cameroon, along the Chad border.
“These poachers are working in gangs. We found shells indicating they are armed with military-issue automatic or semi-automatic weapons. They have been riding through Bouba Ndjida on horseback since early January and are perfectly familiar with the terrain. Villagers who have come into contact with the poachers were told of their plans to collect as much ivory as they can until the end of March,” she said.
Sissler Bienvenu said the poachers seemed undeterred by the presence of the Cameroon military which appeared inexperienced with bush warfare and lacked an intervention strategy.
“The authorities I met from Cameroon during this mission are fully aware of the crisis, but do not seem to realize the magnitude of the tragedy because the elephant poaching problem in Bouba Ndjida raises another sensitive issue: that of national security and the porous border shared by Cameroon and Chad,” she said.
IFAW’s visit to Bouba Ndjida documented the extreme violence with which the elephants had been slaughtered. In some cases it appeared the elephants were chased before being gunned down. Their trunks were then severed and their tusks removed with a machete.
Veterinarian Sharon Redrobe, who travelled with the team, said it appeared the elephants were probably still alive when their tusks were hacked out.
“These elephants would have suffocated and experienced a long, agonising death,” she said.
In addition, IFAW found that the killing was indiscriminate – nearly all the elephants in a herd were slaughtered, regardless of sex or age. The IFAW team saw the bodies of several very young animals aged a few months to several years that either would not have had tusks or would have had very small ones if at all. Some bodies showed markings of senseless cruelty.
“In some groups, the state of decomposition was different suggesting that poachers waited until surviving elephants came back to ‘mourn’ their dead before shooting them as well,” said Sissler Bienvenu.
Finally, the poachers took a trophy from each dead elephant’s ear. This practice, unknown in Cameroon, is however common in Sudan, where fragments of elephant ears are worn on necklaces. It reinforces the likelihood that that these heavily armed horseback poachers are from Sudan, though Chadian nationals may also have taken part.
Sissler Bienvenu said it was time that Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic cooperated to preserve their elephant herds and to develop a coherent strategy to fight poaching.
“This tragedy could have been averted if authorities had listened to the alarm bells earlier this year, especially since what is happening today in Bouba Ndjida is an exact repeat of what happened in Chad’s Zakouma National Park between 2005 and 2009. The skill and determination of these gangs of poachers is no longer in question,” she said.
“At the same time, the only way to stop these bloody attacks perpetrated against elephants in Cameroon and Africa as a whole is to eliminate the demand for ivory at the international level. To do this, a complete and unambiguous international ban on the sale of ivory is the only and best solution,” she said.
In 2008, an exceptional legal sale of 108 tons of ivory stocks from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to China and Japan was allowed. This sale boosted demand and provided an ideal cover for illicit ivory sales. In 2009, this resulted in a dramatic increase in seizures which culminated last year with a record-setting 23 tons of seized ivory. Unfortunately, this only represents a small portion of all the ivory sold illegally around the world.
IFAW works at various levels to combat ivory trafficking by providing anti-poaching support for park rangers and police, particularly in West and Central African countries where elephants are most vulnerable. IFAW is working with customs and law enforcement officials to prevent exports of ivory from Africa and aims to reduce demand in China through awareness campaigns so people understand that each piece of ivory comes from a dead elephant. IFAW also works with CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to end these exceptional legal sales of ivory, which invariably result in increased demand and more dead elephants and park rangers who try to protect them.
IFAW has recently signed a memorandum of agreement with Chadian authorities to support the fight against poaching in Sena Oura National Park which borders Bouba Ndjida.
In addition to its political action and support provided to park rangers and patrols to fight against poaching, especially in the Tsavo (Kenya) and Liwonde (Malawi) national parks, IFAW has formed a mobile anti-poaching assessment and training team.
About IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Founded in 1969, IFAW saves animals in crisis around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit www.ifaw.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
NOTE: In November 2008 China and Japan bought 108 tonnes of ivory in a "one-off" sale from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. These legal sales provide the cover necessary for the illegal trade in ivory to flourish. IFAW runs anti-poaching projects to protect elephants where they live.
Besides policy work and supporting wildlife rangers and anti-poaching patrols in Kenya’s Tsavo National Parks, Malawi’s Liwonde National Park and elsewhere, IFAW has established a roving anti-poaching assessment and training team.
We focus on Central and West African countries with serious elephant poaching problems and a desire to solve them. Our expert anti-poaching assessment team first undertakes an anti-poaching needs assessment at a specific site to identify capacity constraints and equipment needs. Prior to sending in the team, IFAW negotiates an agreement with the government that outlines the terms of IFAW’s intervention and grants government permission.