Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) confirmed yesterday that as many as 11,000 elephants have been slaughtered by poachers in Gabon’s Minkebe National Park, effectively reducing its elephant population to a third of what it was in 2004. The majority of killings are believed to have occurred in the last five years as prices for legal and illegal ivory have spiked.
Located in the northeast corner of Gabon, the park has no permanent human inhabitants and almost no infrastructure, making access difficult. But the same inaccessibility that has served to protect the region also makes it difficult to detect and apprehend poachers who frequently cross into Gabon from neighboring Cameroon.
Until recently, Gabon’s elephant herds were believed to be less impacted by poaching than those in other parts of Africa, where according to the Born Free Foundation, an estimated 31,800 individuals were lost to poaching last year. However, Gabon’s National Park Agency (ANPN) reported an uptick of poaching in recent years, including the 2011 slaughter of 27 elephants in a protected area just outside of the capital.
In June 2011, a significant increase in human activity in the Minkebe National Park and its buffer zone was detected. A small camp of 300 artisanal gold miners had expanded to over 5,000 miners, poachers, and arms and drugs dealers. Park authorities estimated that 50-100 elephants were being killed daily as a result of increases in demand for ivory from the Far East and resulting price hike.
A series of recent surveys, conducted by WCS, WWF, and Gabon’s ANPN, reveal that the slaughter has been much greater than previously thought.
Since the survey results were announced, Gabon has stepped up its anti-poaching efforts. President Ali Bongo Ondimba announced that Gabon will pass new legislation to further dissuade commercial ivory poachers even more by increasing prison terms to a minimum of three years for ivory poachers and 15 years for poaching and ivory trafficking involving organized crime. Speaking in a cabinet meeting, the president urgently called for a strong, coordinated, and decisive response to this national emergency from all of the security and wildlife management services.
Lee White, head of ANPN said: “Over the last three years we have deployed 400 additional parks staff, 120 soldiers and 30 gendarmes in our fight to stop illegal killing of elephants for the black market ivory trade. Despite our efforts we continue to lose elephants every day. If we do not turn the situation around quickly the future of the elephant in Africa is doomed. These new results illustrate starkly just how dramatic the situation has become. Our actions over the coming decade will determine whether these iconic species survive.”
Richard Ruggiero, Chief of the Branch of the Near East, South Asia and Africa, Division of International Conservation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said: “We are working closely with the Gabonese authorities, who are showing true leadership, but this is a global problem and will require a global solution.”
Mike Fay, the WCS explorer who played a key role in convincing the late Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondimba to create a network of 13 national parks in 2002, said: “Conservation efforts in the Minkebe region have failed to react to the growing pressure of ivory poaching with tragic results. We need rethink how we do business and to act decisively if we are to save the elephant.”
Gabon is home to an estimated 40,000 forest elephants – more than the rest of Africa combined. Minkebe National Park is recognized as a critical site for conservation by the IUCN, and has been proposed as a World Heritage Site.
Located at the equator along the Atlantic coast of central Africa, Gabon has an extensive system of rainforests that cover 85% of the land, and is known for its conservation efforts.
In 2002, President Omar Bongo Ondimba established Gabon as an important ecotourism destination by designating roughly 10% of the country to its national park system. With a total of 13 parks, Gabon has one of the highest proportions of natural parkland of any country in the world.