Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Three African Countries Wage War Against Elephant Poachers

Mutilated elephant carcasses in Cameroon's Bouba N'Djida National Park following the slaughter

It has been recently announced that the nations of Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya are waging war against poachers who have mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of elephants within the past few weeks. Among the most shocking and tragic incidents, Cameroon had experienced a mass slaughter of 200 elephants over the past eight weeks in Bouba N'Djida National Park. In response, more than 100 government soldiers were deployed at the site in a military offensive against the poachers to secure the nation's sovereign territory, the local people, and the elephant population. It was said that the heavily-armed killers entered the territory by illegally crossing the park's border with Chad. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), they were reportedly Arabic speakers believed to be from Sudan, and traveling on horseback.
Malaysian customs officers inspecting an illegal ivory seizure made in Port Klang early this year

Since the horrific mass murder, the government of Cameroon was under pressure from the European Union, civil society and environmental groups, and members of the diplomatic and international community to take action and secure the nation's borders. Lamine Sebogo, elephant coordinator for WWF Africa elephant, stated that the remaining elephants in northern Cameroon are a key to the subspecies' survival. He added saying that the area accounts for 95 percent of elephants in Cameroon, and around 80 percent of the total population in Central Africa. The WWF stated that details of the slaughter have been difficult to determine, due to the area's remote location and the level of insecurity. It is estimated that the total elephant population in Bouba N'Djida is at around 400. The number of animals poached over the past few months is thought to be between 200 and 300, although there have been reports as high as 450. The WWF further added that any remaining population is at high risk until military forces are able to secure the area. According to Natasha Kofoworola, regional representative of WWF Central Africa Region Programme Office, the perpetrators must be engaged, arrested, and prosecuted to send a message of deterrent to other poachers that Cameroon's territory and wildlife resources are not to be violated. In 2010, following the increase of poaching in the trans-boundary areas of Cameroon's Lobeke National Park, WWF International's Director General Jim Leape sent a letter to the prime minister requesting drastic action to help curb the situation. In 2011, twelve ambassadors also wrote about the high levels of insecurity several of the nation's national parks, especially those on international borders, requesting reinforcement in the parks' security. However, during those times, the government did not respond until this horrific massacre which according to WWF-Cameroon's country director Basile Yapo Monssan "is their wake-up call."
Team of Virunga National Park's rangers with one of the bloodhounds of the new Congohounds unit

While Cameroon is gearing up for the battle against elephant poachers, authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have unleashed a new elite anti-poaching unit: bloodhounds. Known as the Congohound unit, the first operation of these super sleuths was launched after a succession of poaching incidents in Virunga National Park. Lasting for two days, the operation resulted in an armed conflict between the park rangers and suspected elephant poachers. In the end, the rangers recovered an illegal cache of weapons. During a routine aerial surveillance of the park, a dead elephant was found on the eastern edge of the park without its tusks. Two of the five bloodhounds were deployed with their handlers, together with a trained ranger protection unit. Following their arrival at the crime scene, the team followed the scent trail for seven kilometers to a small fishing village. There, a unit of rangers patrolled the area through the night and intercepted a group of suspects who opened fire the following morning. After a short exchange, the suspects fled the scene, leaving behind their rifles. The park's chief warden, Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, praised the dogs and the rangers saying that they proved to be an effective weapon against poachers. The training was conducted by a specialized Swiss center that has trained many K-9 units in Europe and North America. It's leader, Dr. Marlene Zahner, stated that she was very proud of the rangers' achievements. The canine unit was deployed in the park as part of a program funded by the European Union to protect its wildlife, which includes mountain gorillas and the elusive okapi as well as elephants. In addition to protecting wildlife, the use of bloodhounds is also part of the effort to restore the rule of law in the park which is heavily influenced by illegal armed groups.
The Congohounds unit with Dr. Marlene Zahner in the center

I'm extremely proud to see these African nations have taken a drastic step in an effort to confront elephant poaching. Cameroon has deployed government soldiers at one of its national parks, following the horrific massacre of 200 elephants eight weeks ago. However, I was shocked to find out that despite numerous letters sent last year and the year before, the nation had failed to enforce its security in its national parks and borders in an effort to combat this ongoing threat. Now, it appears that the time has come for Cameroon to strengthen its efforts in protecting its elephants. Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has specialized its effort against poaching by employing bloodhounds to track down poachers and recover any illegal contraband. In my opinion, Cameroon should learn from its Central African neighbor in an effort to fight the battle against poaching. This will give the park rangers and other authorities an advantage against the perpetrators. But at the same time, I feel that Cameroon should also enforce stricter laws against poaching including stiffer sentences for the poachers. In addition to that, Cameroon should not wait for a catastrophic incident in order to take such a drastic action. Even a simple crime related to poaching must be taken very seriously. This was seen in the case of Kenya, where two rangers were killed while on duty. The two men were patrolling to remove wire snares in Sagala Ranch when they were ambushed by poachers, who shot them dead and stole their rifles and ammunition. Since then, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and other security agencies carried out a massive operation resulting in the arrest of 33 suspects. According to Paul Odoto of the KWS, the suspects are still in custody and security teams are still patrolling the area in search of the missing firearms and to rid it of poachers. This is an ideal example of how poaching is taken seriously in Kenya, and should be implemented in other nations where the crime is rampant including Cameroon.

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