Changing Planet

Chaos and Confusion Following Elephant Poaching in a Central African World Heritage Site

As poachers fired on forest elephants inside the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Central African Republic (CAR), the impotence of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations in preventing the slaughter of wildlife amid political chaos was, once again, revealed.

Earlier this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that on May 6 a group of 17 heavily armed poachers, who presented themselves as part of the transitional Séléka government but were of Sudanese origin, entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.

They then headed to Dzanga Bai, a large clearing where between 50 and 200 elephants gather at any given time during the day and night for the mineral salts. Ecoguards later reported that they saw these poachers fire at elephants from the observation platform used by scientists and tourists.

Located in southwestern CAR, the Dzanga-Sangha reserve (which includes the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park) is part of the Sangha River Tri-National Protected Area (TNS), which includes Nouabalé Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Lobéké National Park in Cameroon. Dzanga-Sangha is home to rare western lowland gorillas and more than 1,000 forest elephants. (This population is part of several thousand that share habitat with NNNP.)

While most World Heritage sites in elephant range states are seriously affected by poaching, the remoteness of the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, combined with on-the-ground support by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), have helped protect it from major poaching incidents. Until now.

For the past 30 years WWF, WCS, and the CAR government have collaborated on programs within the Dzanga–Sangha protected areas that both protect wildlife and support livelihoods for hundreds of local people.

For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also has supported efforts in the park, including funding research on the forest elephants that use Dzanga Bai.

Dozens of Elephants Dead

Following the retreat of poachers on the evening of May 8, ecoguards explored Dzanga Bai the next day and found more than 26 elephant carcasses: 20 adults and four youngsters in the clearing itself and two in the river nearby. All their tusks had been hacked off.

An assessment of additional damage, possibly including other elephant carcasses in the surrounding forest and smaller clearings, is ongoing. It is reported that at least one of the camps in the park has been ransacked.


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.
Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


A Surprise

The violent incursion took conservationists by surprise. Months earlier, groups of poachers originating from Sudan, who were killing elephants in the Ngotto forest (some 60 miles from Dzanga Sangha), had been successfully blocked from advancing toward Dzanga-Sangha by government troops supported by WWF.

WWF staff in the area thought the poachers had left the region and started their trek back to Sudan in order to beat river levels rising in the rains; their donkeys and camels would be unable to cross the swollen rivers.

While lawlessness in the area had increased over the last two months—rebels repeatedly pillaged park headquarters and WWF offices, and there had been some local elephant poaching—nobody was ready for the methodical attack.

Since 2010, poachers had sought the Dzanga Bai elephant clearing, but conservationists had managed to prevent them from reaching it.

“We didn’t expect to find our worst nightmare: the most experienced elephant killers of these parts of Central Africa,” said Bas Huijbregts, who leads the Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign for WWF in Central Africa.

“With our staff evacuated after the pillaging,” Huijbregts said, “our main priority was maintaining a minimum protection presence to stop local poachers from going on a rampage in the park while continuing to try to mobilize reinforcements from central government troops in Bangui. We were not prepared for this.”


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.
Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


Who Are the Poachers?

Who are the poachers? The answer is unclear. The vehicle carrying the group into the park was branded as Séléka. The poachers did not speak the local language or French.

“We understand that these Sudanese poachers came with a mission order from Séléka powers in Bangui,” Huijbregts said.

In March, Séléka, which means “union” in the local Sango language and is an alliance of seven opposition groups, finally ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Chaos has reigned since then.

There have been many reports of looting, rapes, killings, and other human rights abuses since the takeover. On April 29, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing strong concern about the worsening humanitarian and security situation and the weakening of CAR institutions.

The Séléka-dominated government is having a very difficult time establishing control over the country. There are many fighters who report to no one, and many splinter groups, who refer to themselves as Séléka but who may or may not be part of the “official” alliance. It seems that each of the seven members of the alliance has its own chief of staff and armed fighters.

One such subsidiary of Séléka is currently stationed in Bayanga, a town near the park, where they’re in charge of protecting Chinese diamond prospectors. Unlike previous groups who sacked  the region, these men are reportedly well-disciplined. They have helped reestablish some rule of law and have had meetings with local authorities and ecoguards.

On Wednesday, this subsidiary delivered a message to the poachers in the park from the Séléka leadership in Bangui asking them to leave the park immediately and report to the Bayanga-based Séléka.

It appears that the poachers obeyed. According to WWF, by the evening of May 8, they had left the park with their truck fully loaded with ivory.

Since the shooting, WWF reports that no elephants have been seen in the area.

What Is Happening Now?

The CAR ministry of environment in Bangui was expected imminently to announce a mission to secure the area in and around the Dzanga-Sangha protected areas. But when that announcement will be made, what such a mission would be, and who would be involved is unclear.

It would likely be made up of agents from the ministry of environment, plus some compilation of other forces. These could include members from one or more of the seven groups that make up Séléka and perhaps some of the official armed forces, who reportedly have little or no weapons or equipment.

As of May 10, most of the park’s 42 ecoguards are back at their posts—watching and waiting.

“We’re at war right now, and it’s foggy,” explains Richard Ruggiero, Chief, Branch of Asia and Africa at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ruggiero has worked on the ground in Central Africa for over 20 years. “The possibility exists that we can turn this around in the very near future.”

Indeed, it’s not the first time conservationists have faced this situation. In 1997, rebels threatened to wipe out elephant herds in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and a group of dedicated conservationists and government rangers successfully prevented it.

“We are considering all options,” Huijbregts said. “We urge the government in Bangui to send the support troops to the area that were promised almost two weeks ago. In the meantime, we continue to support the local rangers, who, against all odds, are still doing their job.”

The Greater Malady

Whatever actions are taken to resolve this crisis, the larger issue is the underlying incentive for the elephant poaching: high demand and high ivory prices.

“What we’re seeing in Dzanga-Sangha is a symptom of a greater malady,” Ruggiero said. “The malady is human selfishness and ignorance that produces the market that causes all of this demand. We’re seeing the symptoms being played out in CAR. The disease is greater and comes from elsewhere.”

“At the end of the day, one of two things will end poaching,” Huijbregts added. “Either there is no more demand, or there are no more elephants. The choice is up to us.”


Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews
Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews
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.
  • karima

    “At the end of the day, one of two things will end poaching,” Huijbregts added. “Either there is no more demand, or there are no more elephants. The choice is up to us.”

    What a powerful line to end this article. This should resonate in all our minds. The insatiable greed, desire and cruel nature of the human race is slowly stripping this planet of its beauty. Such majestic creatures are under threat and for what? Human consumption. Kudos human population. Kudos.

  • Magdaleen Strydom

    So sad, shocking and senseless..

  • Laura Savill

    I cannot repeat what I have just said – but if there is a God I hope he takes note of what some humans are doing to gentle and wonderful mammals. It must stop – or don’t we care enough!

  • Harriet

    Donate money to organization that can actually do something!

  • stephanie blair

    the very fact that these thugs can roam about in africa slaughtering our wildlife with impunity is a dire indictment on the govts concerned. why is there no pressure on the end users – China and Vietnam?

  • Marilyn Coussoule

    Prevail upon your representatives in governments all over the world to fund a war against poaching. Don’t wait for some God to intervene. Thank you National Geographic for your constant vigilance in this crisis.

  • Luis

    This makes me sick to my stomach… please put a bounty on each poachers head.

  • Salomé Aramburo

    “Emboldened by a change of government, heavily armed Sudanese poachers are slaughtering forest elephants en masse at a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Government of the Central African Republic and its international partners CAN stop the slaughter if they ACT NOW. Please help us push for immediate and sustained action”

  • Tim

    I really wish I was a super hero. I’d take care of this situation real quick.

  • Gunnel

    Why can’t we put pressure on the Chinese Government to tell their people to stop buying ivory! They stopped the killing of pandas overnight! There must be something we can do. I just hate to think the African elephant will be extinct in 10 years!

  • Fran

    The elephants don’t have the luxury to wait while the humans figure out a peaceful way to resolve this problem. It’s time to pull as many resources and invest in fire power on the ground and in the air.

    The other issue is China and Vietnam. It is their demand for ivory that is fueling this march towards elephant and rhino extinction. Stop the Chinese and Vietnamese and these animals will survive.

  • Bellachella

    This massacre is enraging and sickening, but not surprising. No government or agency is willing to do anything of substance to stop the slaughter of elephants or the sale of ivory. CITES is a miserable failure. Our elected officials won’t bring-up any unpleasantness with China – the Chinese own our debt. I sign petitions and send checks to NGOs, but that’s like swatting at flies. It’s hard to sustain hope in the face of corruption and apathy. I don’t say this with bad intent, just great sadness. I wish I were the God that I no longer believe in, because I would send plagues that this world has never seen to punish mankind for its greed and cruelty.

  • Charlotte

    This is terrible and cruel. I wonder, what could be done to prevent these happenings, army guards!?

  • Steffi

    Although I am a very peaceful person I would take a gun to stop I Have been there last year and was wondering why the poachers have not been there yet., because it’s easy for them. And I was really valuing the work people do there to avoid such situations. My thoughts are not onl with the dead elephants but also with all comitted people in Dzanga-Sangha. I wish I,would knowe what I personally could do aside signing petitions.

  • Lori Price

    Unless by some miracle we can convince the Chinese that dead poacher is an aphrodisiac or the world governments, NGOs and CITES will FINALLY get some cajones and stand up to China, the poaching will continue. The Chinese do not care about the elephants. The only reason they protect the Giant Pandas is they PROFIT from doing so. All they care about is money. I hate to paint an entire country with such a broad brush but actions speak louder than words. Until China (and Vietnam and other countries )prove through their ACTIONS by closing ivory carving factories and stopping the demand, the world will hold them responsible for the slaughter and rightfully so. This is a crime against the world and humanityb (as their slaughter is a reflection of our moral demise as humans). We cannot allow this to continue. Armies and special ops should be sent in to protect the elephants. they are Africa’s legacy and vital to the ecology of the forests and their other habitats. I am heartbroken and ashamed to be a member of the same species responsible for this devastation.

  • TanYaisa Payne

    we have to wake the lawmakers up……some how……..what else will it take, to stop the wars put the children of the leaders controlling the fighting in the combat, put the children of the leaders on world summit about the environment/arctic in a room and make them watch the documentaries and poachings and the dying polar bears and dogs being tortured and then slaughtered on film in china and korea, the dolphin slaughter in Japan and the cowards killing seals and wolves and Lions and other animals for fun FUN, and see if these children of the lawmakers(teen and adult children I mean)will make a change.
    TanYaisa Wolf Advocate
    I feel that people caught and can be proven to be poachers, especially the poachers and trophy hunters of these Elephants, the Lion’s, the other Big Cats and the Gorillas should be subject to an “INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL LAW ” that is punishable by Life in Prison. No excuses, no deals. If you break these laws and proven beyond a doubt, especially if caught on VIDEO, that is my opinion and I am a fair minded person.

  • Lou

    I am sickened by what is happening to these magnificent elephants in Africa. i am tired of sitting safe at home reading about it and signing petitions. I am trying desperately to find an organization that will take the fight to the Chinese and/or the poachers. I spent 10 years in the US Army with one deployment to Iraq. I am not afraid to take the fight to those responsible for these atrocities. If anyone out there has any contacts please respond to my comment. I will be coming back to check in the near future. Thank you.

  • Luis Andrade

    I think that the only logical think to do is hit the chinese where they hurt the most. Let´s not buy anything that´s comes from China and see if they stupid rulers finally listen to the world.

  • Scott Nelson

    We have a new organization based in Seattle that is sending supplies to the anti-poachers. We need gear and equipment and donations badly. We are working with other NGOs in Africa to fight poaching. Instead of sending a check, you can send GPS’s, rain gear, and other items.

  • Gonzalo

    The local African governments, in view of their problems, should agree to share responsibility for the protection of these parks with foreign governments and organizations, so foreign money and personnel could easily flow there. Many people around the world, including myself, wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer one year of work to put some boots on the ground and stop this madness. WWF and WCS should push for this option with those governments.

  • Martin

    It’s nice that somebody would volunteer a year of their life to save wildlife in Africa. Can someone tell me why Stephen E. Sanderson demands a salary of $787,747 per year to run the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society?

  • Ian Redmond

    One way to reduce the demand is to educate the Chinese buyers of ivory, who are blissfully unaware that their purchase funds organised crime and rebel armies. You can help by watching this video, sharing it and chipping in to – Thanks for caring!

  • Ann Lewis

    Having just read of the crushing and burning of a stockpile of Ivory in the Philippines, it occurs to me that this act is signing the death warrant of countless more elephants. Surely it is better to permit the existing tusks to be sold and used rather than creating a further demand for ivory as a result of the loss? It seems to be a noble gesture without any good end result.
    The only way forward is to STOP THE DEMAND in the Far East and we don’t have any really good ideas as to how to do this?. USE THE SOCIAL MEDIA to educate the Chinese, use it to wean them away from the glamour of ivory. Words can move mountains but not when they come from the mouths of politicians.

  • nur fadhilah binte noor ali

    im so sorry for the elephants i feel sad reading this now i know that we are not suposed to kill elephants or abuss the cus that they have feeling

  • Chris Parker

    International Anti Poaching Foundation is founded by Special Forces veterans who are training, equipping & supporting African game rangers to directly protect rhino and elephant from poachers. IAPF is developing a 21st century conservation program and providing game rangers with a sustainable career path to benefit their communities.

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