Conservation groups are decrying an alarming peak in elephant deaths owing to ivory poaching
in the near-equatorial nation of Cameroon this year. According to the Washington DC-based group WWF, death-toll estimates in Bouba N’djida National Park, in Cameroon’s northeastern
interior, range from 128 to as many as 300 individuals so far in 2012 — a staggering 40–80% of the park’s total count of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana).
Increases in poaching are not unusual during Cameroon’s dry season, which runs from November through April. But the sheer number of elephants killed this year has sparked outrage and, on 1 March, triggered the deployment of 150 Cameroonian soldiers to counter the group of estimated 100 heavily armed poachers who have been slaughtering the protected animals.
“The forces arrived too late to save most of the park’s elephants, and were too few to deter the
poachers,” Natasha Kofoworola Quist, director of the WWF’s Central African office, told reporters during a telephone news briefing on 15 March. No additional elephant deaths have been discovered in the park in the past week, but no arrests have been made either, according to WWF Cameroon conservation director David John Hoyle.
Biologically diverse and protected only by unarmed rangers, Bouba N’djida National Park is located
near Cameroon’s porous northern border where it presents a tempting target for poachers from Sudan
and Chad. They typically cross into the park on horseback at the beginning of each dry season and
return north before the rains begin in April, using ivory profits to procure more weaponry. But this year, the poaching rate is unprecedented, says Hoyle: “This is an extreme case with foreign nationals coming in, heavily armed, to basically decimate the region’s biodiversity.”
According to the WWF, northern Cameroon’s elephant population represents 80% of the total population of savannah elephants in Central Africa, and savannah elephants have been the hardest hit by poachers. However, as the savannah-elephant population declines, the organization warns that poachers may begin hunting forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) more fervently. Experts warn that the loss of both savannah and forest elephant populations in Central Africa will have far-reaching ecological implications. “When you wipe out major players like elephants, it wreaks havoc on these really complex ecosystems,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology in Seattle, who genotypes seized ivory and elephant dung to map poaching hot spots.
“Forest elephants are major seed dispersers for rainforest trees, while savannah elephants keep
woodland under control so that the savannah remains a savannah,” says Wasser.
The illegal ivory trade has been a perennial problem in central Africa, peaking in the 1970s and 1980s
and continuing since then at a lower, but steady, rate owing to increased awareness and an international ivory ban. But, today’s poachers are armed with automatic weapons and driven by lucrative markets in China and Thailand.
“The question now is, will this population be exterminated or not?” says George Wittemyer, a
conservation biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins who studies elephants at Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
Wittemyer sees the recent spike in killings as evidence of a changing economic dynamic that could have
devastating consequences. “We haven’t seen prices like these since the 1980s,” he says. “When you see
military mercenaries coming across Africa to shoot out elephants, that’s a really bad situation, and we
are in deep trouble.”
The WWF is calling for Cameroon officials to work with the governments of Chad and Sudan
to arrest perpetrators, reduce poaching incidents in the region and allow the savannah-elephant
population to regain its footing. “I consider it an atrocity,” Wasser says of the situation in
Cameroon, “but the thing that hurts me even more is that it takes an event like this to raise people’s
Photo credit: Alain Nouredine/Bouba N’Djida