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11,000 Elephants Slaughtered in African Forest

Gabon’s Minkebe National Park, once home to Africa’s largest forest elephant population, has lost 11,100 individuals to the illegal ivory trade in recent years, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced this week. (See National Geographic images of the elusive forest elephant.) Surveys suggest that one in every three elephants in what was once a sanctuary for...

Gabon’s Minkebe National Park, once home to Africa’s largest forest elephant population, has lost 11,100 individuals to the illegal ivory trade in recent years, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced this week. (See National Geographic images of the elusive forest elephant.) Surveys suggest that one in every three elephants in what was once a sanctuary for forest elephants has been taken for ivory trinkets.“This sad news from Gabon confirms that without a global commitment, great elephant populations will soon become a thing of the past,” said WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper, in a WCS news release. “We believe that elephants can still be saved—but only if nations greatly increase their efforts to stop poaching while eliminating the illegal ivory trade through better enforcement and reduced demand.” According to WCS, a significant increase in human activity in Minkebe  and its buffer zone was detected 18 months ago. “A small camp of 300 artisanal gold miners had expanded to over 5,000 miners, poachers, and arms and drugs dealers. Park authorities estimated that 50-100 elephants were being killed daily as a result of increases in demand for ivory from the Far East and resulting price hike.”

 
J Michael Fay, the WCS/National Geographic explorer who played a key role in convincing Gabon to create a network of 13 national parks in 2002, sent this post to A Voice for Elephants:

 

Just last Saturday I took a routine reconnaissance flight over Wonga Wongue, the Presidential Reserve on Gabon’s relatively pristine coastline. We were flying kind of high but were seeing small groups of three to ten elephants in the open savannas. The sun was going down, the grass shimmering gold, and I was happy to be watching tranquil elephants.

Then I saw it, barely visible, a round dimple in the grass with a gray dot in the middle. Immediately I knew it was a poached elephant. We flew to the spot and, sure enough, there it was: a young bull with his head chopped off, trunk sliced free, and skull busted open to remove the tusks. He hadn’t been there for more than a couple of days. We flew wider circles and found five more carcasses. The poachers were probably still in the park.

I have seen so many dead elephants in the past 30 years that the sight from the air will never leave me. It was deja vu from 2011, when we found a similar, larger massacre in the same location.

Next day we headed out to the scene. It was obvious that these guys were pros. They knew where to shoot, how to decapitate the elephants and remove the tusks in no time flat. We inspected the carcasses. All were young males, barely ten years old. One elephant had buckshot through the head to finish it off. Another had had its achilles tendon sliced through to keep it from running away. The blood was still fresh.

 

WCS photo by J. Michael Fay
WCS photo by J. Michael Fay

 

We found the tracks of five men and followed them east of the park toward a lake that would have led to the poachers to the Ogooue River and beyond. Two of the sets of tracks were deeply indented from the weight of ivory being carried. These guys got away.

There are no more big tuskers in this park. Twenty years ago there were a few hundred.

For the past three years we have witnessed here in Gabon what we always feared would happen: When the vast majority of elephants in all of West and central Africa were killed, the poachers would descend on Gabon. We would see the forests emptied of elephants, as we have witnessed in Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chinese demand for ivory would quickly take up from slackening demand in the West.

Our worst nightmare for elephants is coming true in Gabon, and for those of us on the ground the figure of 11,000 lost in a decade comes as no surprise at all.

Our worst nightmare for elephants is coming true in Gabon, and for those of us on the ground the figure of 11,000 lost in a decade comes as no surprise at all.

We have been saying it for so long that we are numb: People should not consume ivory, period.

What sickness of greed and vanity is it that drives human beings to commit this slaughter? Here in Gabon we get little help. We are trying to keep up, buying vehicles, sending soldiers into the forest, hiring guards. But there are hundreds of poachers. Only a concerted resolution from the United Nations, and direct assistance, will solve this problem.

If we can find hundreds of millions of dollars to fight terrorism in Mali, we should be able to find the resources to combat this last big push by poachers, which may well be the final blow to a species that has just about gone extinct in the majority of countries where it once ranged.

The surveys of Gabon’s Minkebe National Park were undertaken by WCS, WWF, and Gabon’s National Parks Agency and funded by ANPN, the CITES MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) Program, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.