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Minkebe: A Tragedy Revealed and a Lesson to be Learned

Readers of this blog and other news related to the calamitous trends in the large-scale poaching of African elephants have another word to add to the vocabulary of crimes against nature: Minkebe. I did not share the shock that the news release from the Office of the President Ali Bongo Ondimba brought to most readers....

Readers of this blog and other news related to the calamitous trends in the large-scale poaching of African elephants have another word to add to the vocabulary of crimes against nature: Minkebe. I did not share the shock that the news release from the Office of the President Ali Bongo Ondimba brought to most readers. I’ve known it was coming for almost two years now, but its arrival brought another more unpleasant emotion. [Related blog post: 11,000 Elephants Slaughtered in African Forest by J. Michael Fay.]

In the 1990s, while working with fellow blogger Dr. Mike Fay and a team of Congolese and expatriate conservationists in northern Congo Republic, the name Minkebe first came to my consciousness from maps and some newly released satellite images of the enormous, virgin forest in neighboring Gabon.  We had our hands filled in Congo in those days. But it was a good time as the basis of long-term conservation was being laid in the Sangha River Trinational area. Then the Congolese civil war intervened, and the north of the country and our protected areas were cut off from Brazzaville and points south. We used a small aircraft to travel in and out of northern Congo during those tumultuous months, even resorting to dropping the monthly payroll to remotely placed ecoguards out of the camera hole in the bottom of the Cessna.

Once, while flying to Libreville, Gabon with Mike at the controls, he steered over an expense of immense primary forest that had caught his attention in previous flights. Huge inselbergs loomed out of the surrounding dark forest, and as we banked to get a better look at some natural clearings at the base, he excitedly spoke into the intercom about how he was finding elephants standing around in the clearings at mid-day and barely reacting to a low-flying aircraft. We could also see groups of gorillas and buffalo in these bais, as we call them, and what was remarkable to us was that they showed little or no fear of the airplane. Such a glimpse of the paradise for elephants Minkebe once was.

This phenomenon took on greater impact during Mike’s 2,000-mile Megatransect. I recall one voicemail he left me, sent by satellite telephone, when he gushed about the completely undisturbed forest and rivers in the area called Minkebe; that when encountered by his group, elephants displayed curiosity rather than fear, which is the usual reaction to signs of humans. Even crocodiles lying on the banks of rivers did not flee, perhaps thinking that people were merely aberrant apes. This was a mere ten years ago.

Fast forward to early 2011. I was working closely with Mike again, who was part of a team in the Gabon National Parks Agency led by Dr. Lee White. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), for whom I work, provides financial assistance to our NGO partners in Gabon and technical assistance to Gabon Parks and the Forestry Ministry. Some large tusks that had been seized in the U.S. were traced back to Minkebe National Park. It was obvious that Minkebe’s splendid isolation was no longer a safeguard against the international ivory trade.

Based on this and other information, working with the Government of Gabon, I accompanied an Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux mission, assisted by the World Wildlife Fund’s logistical team. We had all read a book about a gold mine in the south of Minkebe in the park’s buffer zone, which in around 2004 had a couple hundred artisanal miners. Lee and Mike told me to expect a couple thousand illegal gold miners there now. That meant a lot more trouble for the park as such enterprises are accompanied by manifold other destructive illegal activities, such as elephant poaching, the commercial bushmeat trade, and the flow of weapons and drugs.

Circles of Hell

Even in light of those expectations, we were shocked when we found more than three times as many miners, along with traffickers in guns, drugs, bush meat, and of course, ivory. As our investigation continued, we found evidence that the park was being devastated by elephant poachers, with dozens of camps and numerous hunters and guns, snare lines for bush meat, and trails exiting the park to neighboring Cameroon, not to mention other gold mines deeper in the park. Amid the noisy, crowded, polluted, lawless confusion of that huge excavation at the top of a forested mountain, with a gaping hole in the forest more than half a mile wide and long, men toiled in sweltering heat and humidity by day and under the lights of a dozen generators and spotlights at night. It brought to mind one of Dante’s circles of hell.

The Gabon Parcs agents on that mission found much valuable information during our few days there. They were as horrified as was I, and I recall the park system’s Technical Director, Ann-Marie Ndong Obiang, who was the ranking officer on the mission, sobbing on my shoulder about what people were doing to the forest and her country. It was a prayer and lament combined. Everyone on our team was moved beyond words. The trip out of the park was hard, quiet, and foreboding.

Our report to Gabon government was received with appropriate alarm, and President Bongo detached a large military team by helicopter to address the situation. Without bloodshed, thousands of miners and poachers were expelled from the park, and the effort to root out poachers and their camps—still ongoing after a year and a half—was begun. Today, elephants are being poached in much lower numbers than before.

But what about the estimate of more than 11,000 elephants poached in Minkebe in than less than 10 years? Many carcasses found in the forest appeared to be less than several years old, so the conclusion is that most of the killing was relatively recent—corresponding to the wave of poaching provoked by rising demand in Asia and the unfettered ability for organized traffickers to move large quantities of ivory to distant markets.

“Dead elephants and seized ivory are the symptoms. Demand is the ailment. The market, human greed and ignorance comprise the syndrome.”

Dead elephants and seized ivory are the symptoms. Demand is the ailment. The market, human greed and ignorance comprise the syndrome.

Of course, unless we effectively protect elephants now and always, the game is over. We must get much better at protection. But if all we do is fight with poachers and middlemen, we will do that until we lose the war. I have never liked the metaphor “ivory wars.” But it’s not a metaphor anymore. Now it’s an accurate description.

A last thought on the Minkebe massacre: What are the lessons we can derive from this spectacular failure of wildlife conservation? How can we save what is left and prevent this scourge from destroying the last remaining elephant refuges? Only ten or so years ago Minkebe held naïve elephants. Now it’s a charnel house, with the remaining elephants traumatized and still running for their lives. Who is responsible for this, and who will put an end to the massacre? Is it even possible, as long as the demand soars? As Lee White has said, “The battle for the survival of the forest elephant will be won or lost in Gabon.” But Gabon is not alone, Minkebe is not abandoned, and the story has yet to be fully told.

Note: the opinion and observations expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


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Meet the Author

Richard Ruggiero
Richard Ruggiero is the Chief of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. He arrived in Africa in 1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. During his almost two decades on the ground, Richard also worked in Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo and Gabon. Although elephants are still the centerpiece of his work, he also focuses on protected area management, helping to build the capacity and collaboration of African conservationists, and addressing the threat posed by illegal international wildlife trade. The opinions expressed in Richard Ruggiero's blog are his own and not necessarily those of either the USFWS or the National Geographic Society.