Life on the front lines
Ask Abagui Iya Lucien, a game ranger who has been working for Lobéké National Park since 1998, what it feels like working as a ranger today and he tells you, “We have attained the nadir.” Never have rangers working in the southeast of Cameroon been so demoralized.
With reason: they have been going after dangerously armed poachers wholly unarmed. They have been begging and yearning for arms to better defend themselves in the face of attacks from Kalashnikov armed poachers, to no avail. Some 30 of them have worked for 12 years hoping that the Cameroon government would honour its promise to integrate them into the civil service.
But the process is beset with paralyzing obstacles, keeping them in long, vexatious wait. These hurdles have left rangers in a sorry state. As if to worsen their frustration, poachers and some local people have been multiplying attacks against them. This has resulted in an increasing number of rangers sustaining injuries and then, recently, one dead.
Examples are legion. On October 8, 2005, two rangers, Ali Moussa and Mossaleng Mekong Jeannot Roger, who were returning from an anti-poaching operation southwest of Lobéké National Park , got stabbed several times on their stomach and sides by a suspicious man on a timber truck. Their assailant went wholly scot-free.
Today both rangers carry huge scares on their stomachs with Mossaleng handicapped for life. “I cannot do 15km hiking into the forest anymore,” he said. In January 2008 Abagui Lucien and Mpouop Simon, both game rangers were stabbed as they attempted to arrest four poachers inside Lobéké National Park .
“We confronted the poachers in an attempt to wrest an AK47 war gun (Kalashnikov) in their possession. They wounded me on my chest and cut my colleague’s index finger in the ensuing struggle,” Abagui explained. Though two of the poachers escaped, the rangers succeeded in arresting two of their accomplices and confiscated the Kalashnikov.
After firing a bullet into the groin of a ranger near Nki National Park in December 2008, a poacher shot another forest ranger, Abakar Amidou, in the chest in 2009. Abakar, who is attached to the government delegation of Forest and Wildlife in the Upper Nyong Division, East Cameroon , was shot by a notorious elephant poacher during anti-poaching operation in a logging concession. The poacher was slammed 80 years prison term.
In the south west of Nki National Park, four rangers and a gendarme were locked up in a house for four hours in a village called Yambot. The rangers were searching for ivory tusks suspected to have been hidden in one of the houses in the village. “We requested and obtained authorization from the village chief to carry out a search but we got locked up by irate villagers who threatened to kill us,” explained Asseme Sidonie, a female ranger.
The same team of rangers was forced to surrender confiscated gorilla meat and a 12-caliber rifle in a village called Etat Frontier on Cameroon’s border with Congo when angry villagers encircled and threatened to beat them if they did not hand back the seized items.
Poachers would not hesitate to use any weapon at their disposal. They used a machete to butcher the ankle of Mpamb David and then on September 27, 2011, they tortured and murdered Achille Pierre Zomedel and seriously wounded his colleague, Mamendji Jean Fils.
During the funeral of their fallen colleague, the forest rangers through their spokesperson stated that, “it is true we are enemies to the public and many are those we wish us dead. But before God and man, we have been doing just our job, in strict respect of administrative norms.”
The rangers’ biggest worry has been inadequate arm for self defence. “We chase armed poachers even in the night with our bare hands. It is a miracle we have so far sustained mostly injuries,” said ranger Mpouop Simon, who had been stabbed. “We are making a clarion call to the government to provide us arms and other equipment to confront poachers. We work under very horrible conditions day and night, on land and in water, sometimes without uniforms,” he said.
The responsibility of forest rangers in Cameroon is to arrest wildlife crime suspects and hand them over to the judiciary for trial. For the past decades, hundreds of poachers have been arrested and taken to stand trial in courts in Yokadouma and Abong Mbang.
Many have been slammed jail terms, “But the overall output of the judiciary has been below expectation,” says David John Hoyle, Director of Conservation for WWF in Cameroon . “We have seen poachers caught red-handed with totally protected wildlife species inside national parks being slammed sentences as small as three-month jail term,” Hoyle stated.
The levity of the judiciary was made even more poignant when a court in Yokadouma, on January 20, 2012, sentenced four ivory traffickers, caught red-handed with 44 ivory tusks in December 2011, to 30 days in jail and a fine of FCFA 4 million (US$8000). This prompted an avalanche of protest from conservation organization and Cameroon Ministry of Forestry and wildlife.
According to Cameroon’s 1994 Wildlife and Forestry law, penalties for the killing of a totally protected class A species, which includes elephants with tusks weighing less than 5kgs, are 1 to 3 years imprisonment and/or a fine of 3 to 10 million FCFA. The wildlife ministry has filed an appeal against the judgment, requesting longer prison sentences and fines of over FCFA 230 million.