African Countries Make War on Elephant Poachers

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon, March 5, 2012 (ENS) – Three African countries – Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya – are taking up arms against elephant poachers, who have killed hundreds of elephants within the past few weeks.

More than 100 government soldiers entered Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park Thursday in a military offensive against elephant poachers to secure Cameroon’s sovereign territory, the local people and the elephant population.

Elephant carcasses in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park (Photo courtesy IFAW)

The action was taken in response to the killing of hundreds of savanna elephants in the northern Cameroon park over the past eight weeks.

Government authorities say heavily armed poachers have entered Cameroon’s sovereign territory illegally across the park’s border with Chad to obtain ivory.

The poachers, who are reportedly Arabic speakers travelling on horseback, are believed to be from Sudan. The tonnes of ivory stripped from the bodies of their victims is likely headed to Asian markets, says the global conservation group WWF, which has been working with the government to combat poaching.

The Cameroon government has been under pressure from the European Union, civil society and environmental groups, and members of the international and diplomatic community to take immediate action to stop the massacre of elephants and secure Cameroon’s borders.

Lamine Sebogo, WWF’s Africa elephant coordinator, says the remaining elephants in the country’s northern region are key to the survival of the subspecies.

“The future of conservation of savanna elephants in Central Africa lies in Northern Cameroon. This area alone accounts for 95 percent of the population of savanna elephants in Cameroon, and around 80 percent of the total population of savanna elephants in all of Central Africa,” said Sebogo.

Maylasia’s Customs Director Dato’ Azis Yacub, left, and other officers inspect a 492 kg ivory seizure made in Port Klang in January 2012. (Photo courtesy TRAFFIC Southeast Asia)

Given the area’s remote location and the level of insecurity, details of the slaughter have been difficult to ascertain, says WWF. The total population of elephants in Bouba N’Djida National Park is estimated at around 400. The number of elephants poached over the past few months is believed to be between 200 and 300, although there have been reports as high as 450. The group says any remaining elephant population is at high risk until military forces are able to secure the area.

“WWF is pleased that Cameroon government has finally taken the initial step to send in troops to the area; however it is absolutely vital that the exercise is not a publicity stunt. The poachers must be engaged, arrested and prosecuted to send out a strong message of deterrent to poachers that Cameroon’s territory and Cameroon’s precious wildlife resources are not there to be violated,” said Natasha Kofoworola, regional representative of WWF Central Africa Region Programme Office.

Basile Yapo Monssan, WWF-Cameroon’s country director, says the government should not have been surprised by this ivory poaching crisis. “We saw this situation coming. We have consistently alerted the government on the alarming growing rate of poaching in Cameroon. This is their wake-up call,” Yapo says.

In 2010, following the increase of poaching in the trans-boundaries areas of Cameroon’s Lobeke National Park, Jim Leape, WWF International’s Director General, sent a letter to the prime minister requesting drastic action from the government to help curb this situation.

In 2011 a group of twelve ambassadors in Cameroon also wrote to the prime minister about the high level of insecurity in many of Cameroon’s national parks, notably those on international borders, requesting that the parks’ security be reinforced.

Meanwhile, the National Park Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo deployed a new elite anti-poaching canine unit to track poachers this week.

Virunga National Park rangers with a member of the new Congohounds team set out to battle elephant poachers. (Photo courtesy Virunga National Park)

The first operation of the Congohound unit was launched after a succession of elephant-poaching incidents in Virunga National Park. The operation lasted two days and resulted in an armed confrontation between park rangers and suspected elephant poachers. The rangers recovered an illegal cache of weapons.

Through routine park aerial surveillance, a dead elephant was discovered in the savannah region on the eastern edge of the park with the tusks cut off.

Two of the park’s five bloodhounds were deployed by air with their handlers, together with a trained ranger protection unit.

They arrived at the scene and followed the scent for seven kilometers to a small fishing village. A unit of rangers patrolled the area through the night, and in the early morning intercepted a group of suspects who opened fire. After a short exchange, the suspects fled, leaving their rifles on the scene.

Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, the chief warden of Virunga National Park, said, “We are extremely pleased with the outcome. After a year of intensive training, both the hounds and the rangers proved to be a very effective weapon against ivory poachers.”

Dr. Marlene Zähner, center, with Congohounds team (Photo courtesy Virunga National Park)

The training was carried out by a specialized Swiss center, led by Dr. Marlene Zähner and assisted by volunteers from the German police. The center has trained many of the police canine units in Europe and North America.

Zähner said, “The rangers of Virunga National Park are exceptionally motivated, professional, and talented men who have learned the skills as fast and effectively as any of the teams I have trained elsewhere in the world. I feel very proud of their achievements this week.”

The canine unit is deployed in Virunga National Park as part of a program funded by the European Union to protect the park’s exceptional wildlife, which includes endangered mountain gorillas and elusive okapi as well as elephants, and to restore the rule of law in a park heavily infiltrated by illegal armed groups.

In Kenya, two rangers were killed by poachers while on duty on Friday morning, the Kenya Wildlife Service announced today. The rangers, who were on a patrol mission to remove wire snares used to kill wild animals in Sagala Ranch, were ambushed by poachers who shot them dead and stole their rifles and bullets.

A massive operation mounted jointly by Kenya Wildlife Service and other security agencies resulted in the arrest of 33 suspects, said Paul Odoto of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

“The suspects are still in police custody helping with investigations,” Odoto said. Security teams are still combing the area in search of the lost firearms and to rid the area of poachers.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.