The martyrdom of elephants: A sad tale of greed

A recent mass slaughter of elephants shows Cameroon’s government is woefully unequipped to deal with poachers.

About 450 elephants were recently slaughtered in the central African country of Cameroon [EPA]

Paris, France – The year 2012 started dramatically for elephants in the central African country of Cameroon. According to the UN, 450 carcasses of these animals – a protected species – have been found in the Bouba N’Djida National Park, near Cameroon’s northern border with Chad. The slaughter is especially worrisome given that, as of 2007, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that only 1,000 to 5,000 elephants are still left in Cameroon.

The massacre is sad proof that in spite of serious efforts, poaching continues to damage Cameroon’s biodiversity, endangering an animal so important in the collective imagination of a continent.

Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, the government agency in charge of the country’s anti-poaching policy, saw its budget slashed from $43m in 2011 to just $33m in 2012. The money dedicated specifically to anti-poaching action was only $2m in 2011 – an amount clearly insufficient for tackling the problem.

The Bouba N’Djida National Park, where the elephants were killed, comprises about 2,200 square kilometres, making it the biggest protected area in the country. Only five guards patrol its grounds, one of whom was killed in 2011. They receive a modest salary of $160 per month. In April 2011, it was announced that the US embassy donated $39,000 worth of equipment to the park, including motorcycles, bicycles, radios, digital cameras and truncheons.

Given that the poachers – who are described as Sudanese and Chadian horsemen – cross the border armed with Kalashnikovs, we can only note the helplessness of Cameroonian guards. Additionally, the country’s poor governance and high levels of corruption don’t help.

Growing demand for ivory exacerbates the problem. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) tries to regulate the international trade of wild animals, and to keep it at a level that does not threaten species’ survival. But the desire for ivory has been increasing in Asia, specifically in China and Thailand, where demand is said to be the highest. Wealthy citizens are ready to pay any price to purchase a good said to have medical and mystical powers.

This high demand has driven up the price of ivory: today, one kilogram of ivory is worth between $1,000 and $1,500 in the Asian market, and each elephant tusk can weigh 10 kilograms. Doing the math, this means that the tusks of the 450 elephants killed could have sold for a minimum of $9m – several times the total annual budget of the Cameroonian anti-poaching fund.

So far, the Cameroonian government’s only official reaction to the massacre has been to call for a consultation with neighbouring authorities in Chad. This would be an option to consider indeed: the Sudanese horsemen, as described by guards of affected national parks and other witnesses in the region, could be members of the Janjaweed militia, which was heavily involved in the Darfur conflict. (Interestingly, Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, recently married the daughter of a Janjaweed leader). After having decimated the elephant population of Chad, the Janjaweed might have made an incursion onto Cameroonian soil to slaughter more of these pachyderms.

Cameroon does not have the ability to, on its own, fight against this trafficking. The answer has to involve the international community.

Ofrir Drorir, an Israeli citizen based in Cameroon, is the founder and director of the the Last Great Ape (LAGA), an anti-poaching organisation. He believes that the insufficiency of Cameroon’s response is not due to a lack of funds, but rather a lack of political courage to enforce the law, by arresting and punishing poachers and traffickers. The struggle is not easy, he says, but needs the full co-operation of all the ministers concerned (mainly the justice, wildlife and defence ministers). But Cameroon’s government has not decided to act yet – which has exasperated the EU’s ambassador, who sent an official letter to Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare estimates that there were 600 elephants left in Bouba N’Djida before the slaughter – meaning that only about 150 likely remain. Now, it is more necessary than ever that the international community adopt an outright prohibition of the ivory trade. Moreover, a multilateral African treaty protecting elephants must be signed.

Nevertheless, no treaty in the world will be efficient if Cameroonians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, and other Africans fail to realise that with the disappearance of elephants, the continent is losing a part of its soul. Will the name of the Ivory Coast’s national football team, Les Éléphants, remain relevant? And will we be able to tell our children tales about the largest land animal on Earth if it disappears?

Julie Owono is a freelance Cameroonian journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris. She blogs at Global Voices and is the Africa Desk Cordinator at Internet Sans Frontières, a French NGO which promotes online freedom of expression.

Follow her on Twitter: @JulieOwono