Changing Planet

Poachers Capitalize on Chaos in Central Africa

Poachers are capitalizing on the disarray in the Central African Republic (CAR) and appear to be moving freely in a search of elephants. Late last year several columns of Sudanese poachers, up to 200 well-armed men, were spotted traveling across northern CAR toward Chad and Cameroon. Reports last week indicate that these poachers are moving back-and-forth between CAR and Chad.

In CAR, groups of poachers on horseback or with camels have been reported in the western and southwestern parts of the country, including several locations near Dzangha-Sangha National Park. The poachers are reportedly speaking Arabic and English. At four separate locations, several fresh elephant carcasses were found. These killings may be serving as “tests” to assess the readiness of troops and other anti-poaching forces.

Last Wednesday, Project Ecofaune, a program funded by the European Union, reported a massacre of elephants near Mbaéré-Bodingué National Park in southwestern CAR. While details on the numbers killed remain sketchy, this morning Ecofaune noted that a group of 24 Sudanese poachers were in the peripheral zone of the Mbaéré-Bodingué National Park and that 10 men were poaching blithely around Ngotto, less than 40 miles away. Reports indicate that several elephants were injured and that elephants had panicked and taken refuge in and around the village. There are also indications that these poachers are becoming aggressive toward people.

The poachers have also made incursions into Chad. On January 27, a surveillance team from the Chadian non-governmental organization SOS Elephants encountered a group of 40 presumed Sudanese elephant poachers between Baibokum and Bessao in the Logone Oriental region of Chad. Two days later, the team found four fresh elephant carcasses in Monts de Lam (also in Logone Oriental).


This Chadian soldier (with Stephanie Vergniault, president of SOS Elephants) was shot in the leg in August 2012 while fighting poachers in the Mayo Lemie region.      Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.
This Chadian soldier (with Stephanie Vergniault, president of SOS Elephants) was shot in the leg in August 2012 while fighting poachers in the Mayo Lemie region. Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.


In both countries it appears villagers are giving intelligence on the elephants’ locations to the poachers in exchange for meat.

“There’s no doubt …we’re seeing a spike in illegal killing and illegal trade with respect to elephant, most prominently within central Africa,” CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon noted. “We’re seeing, quite clearly, that organized crime is engaged… And rebel militia are also involved, in particular in Central Africa as a way of supplementing income for illicit activities. Responding to this threat goes beyond the capacity of your average park ranger.”

In Cameroon, the government has deployed its special forces military unit, the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR). In Chad, the army has been pursuing the poachers and chasing them to the border, according to Stephanie Vergniault, president of SOS Elephants.

Weak Link

CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world and has long been plagued by conflict and coups. The government’s capacity to deal with this or any other threat is severely lacking, as was in evidence throughout December 2012 and early January this year when rebel forces, threatening to overthrow the government, captured one-third of the country.


The Chadian army unit in charge of the anti-poaching effort. Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.
The Chadian army unit in charge of the anti-poaching effort. Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.


Unable to repel the rebels, CAR President Francois Bozizé pleaded for military assistance. Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno sent forces who were soon joined by troops from other central African countries and South Africa, with France supporting these efforts. The United States temporarily closed its embassy and evacuated its staff because of the security situation. A cease-fire and peace plan were agreed on January 11, with President Bozizé allowed to remain in power until his term ends in 2016 and Nicolas Tiangaye, an opposition lawyer, appointed as prime minister. However, on January 30th the Voice of America reported the rebels had broken the agreement. The political situation remains in flux.

Even if the capacity existed, it is unclear if the political will to address poaching is there. According to the Voice of America, after signing the peace deal in January, President Bozizé declared he would “work to strengthen ties with China, and to promote oil exploration and development.” In neighboring Chad, SOS Elephants President Vergniault says the Chinese are largely responsible for promoting the illegal ivory trade, with ivory “smuggled through Chinese nationals working for the China National Petroleum Company” on an oil pipeline project.


Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno meets with SOS Elephants president Stephanie Vergniault in January to discuss the elephant poaching situation. Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.
Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno meets with SOS Elephants president Stephanie Vergniault in January to discuss the elephant poaching situation. Photograph courtesy SOS Elephants.


The EU Ambassador noted in a January 30th letter to Cameroon’s prime minister that, despite troop deployments around some of Cameroon’s protected areas, the elephants remain under imminent threat from the “worrisome movement of armed groups in neighboring countries.”

The situation is similar in Chad. In response to the movement of poachers from Sudan across CAR to the Chad border, last December Déby sent military aircraft to patrol the Mayo-Lemie–Chari Baguirmi regions, where elephant numbers have more than doubled from 300 at the start of 2012 to around 700. Last August Déby launched a massive search that captured five of the poachers responsible for a massacre of 63 elephants in that same area. And this morning five trucks with 100 more soldiers arrived in the Logone region to hunt the poachers. Déby’s personal concern over elephant poaching is well known.

The weak link remains CAR. As Vergniault explains, “Apparently the poachers ran away [from the Chadian soldiers] in the direction of Cameroon. But in Cameroon anti-poaching units are also after them. Their only option is CAR.”

Laurel Neme is the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, a narrative non-fiction “CSI for wildlife” with a foreword by Richard Leakey and endorsed by Jane Goodall that's been featured on ABC News Nightline and NPR’s Science Friday. She is also the author of the children's book, ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, based on a true story of an ape who outwits his zookeeper. She has hosted The WildLife radio show and addressed a range of groups on wildlife forensics and trafficking, and animal intelligence, including INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, the St. Louis Zoo, American Museum of Natural History, universities, school groups and libraries. Previously, she worked on natural resource and wildlife management as both a government officer and international consultant in dozens of countries around the world, helping her understand the real-life tradeoffs between wildlife protection and human economic needs. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan and PhD from Princeton University. See Laurel Neme's website for more.
  • the one and only TYLER PARKER

    This Poaching thing is bull flip i should go down there and go all RAMBO on them.

  • 666


  • Bellachella

    Abhorrent and rage-inducing. Chad’s President sounds like a good man. I hope he deals with the poachers severely. They deserve to leave this world the same way as their victims; terrified and without their teeth. The ivory buyers too.

  • Emmanuel Mukama

    This a very offensive story! why this is still happening? May be we can increase education projects about biodiversity conservation.They don’t know something about Ecosystem functioning. if they are still removing those animals,how about their roles in ecosystems? really we must still think about it? they think all in money but without thinking how their children will survive in future. Thank you!

  • Sarah

    Shame on you China for creating this ivory market demand! If Ivory is where you want to store your wealth-consider an alternative like gold. That’s what many people in India do. Get your priorities in line with the greater good China! Or the elephant spirits are going to give you bad karma for generations to come and you will be shamed! If any of you awesome Americans visit China make sure the vendors know we think they are the scum that they are for selling ivory and they won’t get a cent of our money.

  • Sarah

    And I love Tyler Parker’s comment too.




    And we should stop buying there ivory too. Out of all of the billions of things they sell they can’t just knock off ivory+ivory isn’t nearly a lot of money as gold, no offense elephants, all of you have priceless horns:)

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