Elephants in search of safe havens
From the small town of Buea at the foot of the Fako Mountain, in the southwest of Cameroon, where I was born and grew up, I remember perceiving the image of elephants during moonlit nights filing past on the mountain slope. I thought the Njokou, as the elephant is called in the dialect of the Bakweri indigenous people who live near the mountain, were gargantuan, mysterious creatures, elusive and cruel. That was some 23 years ago.
When I joined WWF-Cameroon as communications officer for the Jengi Southeast Forest Program in 2006, coming from the press, I was anxious to ‘meet this mysterious creature.’ “There are many elephants in the east,” a colleague had whispered to me as I assembled my luggage to leave for southeast Cameroon. “They visit villages and rub shoulders with local people,” he grinned.
My closest contact with the forest elephant came in March 2006 when I accompanied an elephant tagging team to Nki National Park, a pristine, hilly forest wilderness teeming then with wildlife in east Cameroon. After hiking for four days, we got to a marshy Bai (forest clearing) called Ikwa, deep inside the park. Behold 28 elephants and four calves communed with buffalos, sitatunga antelope and gorillas in the clearing. I stood stultified some 20 metres away watching calves stick to their mothers who pampered and cuddled them. I left Ikwa that evening feeling fulfilled.
Three months later, June 2006, I went to Djembe, a base camp inside Lobeke National Park. As we rested for the night we heard the deafening sound of elephant footsteps. As we settled for breakfast in the morning, one of the elephants trudged out from the nearby bush and began feeding on Indian bamboos. The bull stayed on for 43 minutes before sauntering off.
Fast forward 2013
The presence of elephants in clearings and other areas of parks in southeast Cameroon in 2006 did not mean this charismatic mega vertebrate was totally beyond reach of the poachers’ bullets. Thanks to a small group of 45 forest rangers recruited with the support of WWF, elephants remained relatively safe. But later events in the region would dwarf rangers’ efforts to ensure their protection. The ramifications of war in neighbouring Republic of Congo and Central African Republic began being felt. In 2008, AK-47 (Kalachnikovs) fell in the hands of poachers. The consequence was an increase in the number of elephants killed, as well as ivory and Kalashnikovs seized. Poorly equipped and unarmed rangers found it difficult to face up to poachers.
Now elephants are facing pressure from all sides. Encounters in forest clearings have become rare. The estimated 2,500 elephants in Lobeke dropped to 1,750 between 2006 and 2009. A visit to the Ikwa clearing in Nki National Park in 2011 revealed the havoc inflicted by poachers. We found the stinking decaying body of a calf lying close to its mother. This was a debilitating sight that dampened my spirit and sapped my proverbial enthusiasm. In Buea, the situation isn’t better as the small home range of elephants that used to number 200 in 1980s has dropped to an estimated 50. The filing elephants are now hard to see on the moonlit mountain slope.
However, there is no turning back now. Concerted actions by conservation organizations and a recent move by the UN Security Council recognizing ivory trafficking as an international crime bring some rays of hope. The Cameroon government is now taking the issue of ivory trafficking seriously by deploying elite soldiers to support forest rangers during anti-poaching operations. Should these efforts be sustained, there are glimmers of hope the world’s largest mammal will survive this lethal threat to its existence.