A safe haven for elephants and gorillas in Central Africa



Posted on 28 January 2012  | 
Dr Carlos Drews is the director of WWF's Global Species Programme
© WWF / Carlos DrewsEnlarge
My name is Carlos Drews. I am the director of the Global Species Programme for WWF.  I have studied animals and worked in wildlife conservation for the last 25 years or so. Recently, I learned about the invisible demise of forest elephants in Central Africa, a large and charismatic animal now threatened with extinction and for which accurate counts do not exist.

The journey to Dzanga Sangha

I decided to travel to Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas in the Central African Republic as part of an inquiry into the best strategy to halt their rampant killing for the international ivory trade. I had learned last week that despite the devastating poaching wave across the Congo Basin, not a single elephant was killed in 2011 in this park. What had been the reason?

The small 6-seater aircraft took a small team of WWF conservationists on a two hour flight from Yaoundé, Cameroon over some 700 km of what I perceived to be a by-and-large seemingly intact and magnifiscent rainforest stretch in Southeastern Cameroon. What I was unable to see from the aircraft was the wave of rampant poaching of elephants under the thick canopy that has  wiped out this species in various forest pockets of Central Africa and that continues unabated and fueled by a growing demand for carved ivory products in Asia, mostly China and Thailand.

First encounters

Upon arrival to the park, the half an hour brisk walk guided by knowledgeable Mr Mutingi, a member of the BaAka people, led through cristal clear creeks and trails under the shade of colossal rainforest trees, eventually yielding a very unexpected sight: not less than 95 elephants wallowing, digging for water and socializing in a vast open area of clay and sand.

I had seen elephants in other parts of Africa before, but these were different. Forest elephants are indeed unique: they are visibly smaller than their savannah counterparts, their ears are rounded in shape and the tusks tend to be quite straight. They have a toe less than savannah elephants and their DNA is distinct enough from these, with some scientists arguing that forest elephants are in fact a separate species altogether.

The elephant families that I had before me varied considerably in colour, depending on the composition of the mud in which they had wallowed most recently. I marveled at the lively sight of young ones and adults, trumpeting and rumbling in this well-known spot, but at the same time felt uneasy realizing their tremendous vulnerability to unscrupulous poaching gangs.

Looming threats

I returned before sunset to the camp to meet with WWF staffmember Bryan Curran, the technical advisor for the park. Dzanga Sangha is jointly managed between WWF and the government. The seasoned conservationist told me about last year´s incursion of Sudanese into the Central African Republic, a heavily armed gang of poachers on horseback, heading towards the park over hundreds of kilometers. WWF notified the armed forces who intercepted the criminals just in time to stop a mass slaugther of elephants in the park.

Curran attributed the success of zero poaching of elephants last year to the significant investment in a platoon of 42 ecoguards, resulting in over 10,700 man-patrol days that acted as an efficient deterrent. Poachers may be focusing now on neighbouring Cameroon and Congo, where enforcement efforts are weak, turning poaching for ivory into a low risk criminal activity with very high returns. I was reassured, however, to see today that there is still a safe haven for forest elephants in Central Africa. And tomorrow I hope to see a habituated group of gorillas, benefitting equally from the safety of Dzanga Sangha.

-Carlos

Read the next dispatch here: The gorillas of Dzanga Sangha

Dr Carlos Drews is the director of WWF's Global Species Programme
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Mr Mutingi, a member of the BaAka people, employed by the Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas as a guide and animal tracker.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) drinking water in the Dzanga Bai forest clearing.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Forest elephant bull (Loxodonta cyclotis) wading in Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas, Central African Republic, one of the last safe havens for elephants in the Congo Basin.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge

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