MINKEBE — Seen from the helicopter, the canopy of Minkébé National Park, in northern Gabon, looks like a green carpet that stretches to the horizon. The immobile uniformity is only broken up here and there by the veins of muddy rivers or a flock of birds flying. There’s no road or village here near the Cameroon and Congo borders.
Minkébé is a miracle of biodiversity that’s been carefully preserved from human attacks. Well, almost.
Down on ground level, at the foot of trees so high they seem to caress the sky, another battle is taking place. A hundred soldiers and forest rangers are hunting down, as best they can in an area of over 2,700 square miles, groups of poachers who, in just the past few years, have already decimated 12,000 of the region's 25,000 elephants. The their ivory is sold for a fortune on the Chinese market.
The war on poachers, as Gabon Air Force Captain Allogo Ovono found out when he arrived a few days ago, is mismatched and uneven. “Logistical issues are huge,” he says. The officer doesn’t even have a radio to communicate with the three small units that settled several days’ walk away from his camp. He also lacks food for his troops and fuel for their canoes. “Or a football and beer for my men,” he adds with no trace of humor.
It took Ovono three days in a dugout canoe, with his men, weapons, luggage and supplies, to reach the camp in Minkébé from the northern city of Mayibout. “We capsized, our fresh food rotted in two days. We got attacked by snakes, bees,” he says. “New troops normally come by helicopter. But everything's broken down.”
Joseph Okouyi, senior ranger at the Gabonese National Parks Agency, tells Ovono how he’s counting on him to carry out “actions against poachers deep inside the forest.” The air force captain sinks even deeper in his broken armchair.
Captain Ovono’s men have two missions. The first consists of dissuading gold prospectors from coming back and digging in a wooded crest that also contains diamonds. In 2011, the army forced 7,000 people to evacuate. The minors’ huts were razed, except for the most solid ones, which soldiers have been occupying ever since.
“The army made miners run and cleaned up the place. If we leave, they’ll come back,” the captain concludes.
This deterring mission is accomplished smoothly and doesn’t pose any major challenge beyond that of living in the forest. The second one on the other hand, tracking down poachers, is turning out to be extremely more complex.
“There is a political will but we’re only half-way there,” says Joseph Okouyi. Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba has indeed made the fight against poaching a priority, saying it's a matter of national security.
The stakes are high for the economy. The Gabonese authorities have high hopes for ecotourism in a country half the size of France, 88% of which is forested but with only 1.5 million inhabitants, including 700,000 in the capital, Libreville.
Of course, Gabon is not virgin land either. In the 1990s, big companies cut down forests with bulldozers until the authorities, braving the opposition of the lobby, implemented a new forestry code and a management plan for the country’s forests. In 2002, then President Omar Bongo Ondimba decreed the creation of 13 national parks, covering 11% of the country’s surface. His son Ali, elected in 2009, continued that policy. But how can Gabon attract tourists with poachers roaming free?
“Our ecotourism project is one that promotes sustainable development and it’s inseparable from our others projects," President Bongo explains. "We need to create room for direct foreign investment. For that, we must develop world-class, sophisticated services in finance, health and education so as to offer an attractive framework for tourism.”
This projects, which rely on the arrival of foreign investors, are only in their infancy. Places to stay are still scarce. The roads, when they exist, are bad. And corruption is rampant. The authorities highlight the country’s “political stability.” But that's only a euphemism to describe a regime that’s been for 50 years in the hands of one single family, the Bongos, who are accused of serving their own interests and swaying elections.
Still, Gabon’s natural setting is truly unique. “In Nigeria, I once saw a gorilla for half-a-second. As for elephants, I only saw their feces,” says Lee White, the head of Gabon's National Parks Agency. “Here though, there are more species of flowers and plants that anywhere else in West Africa. There are 10 times more elephants than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Indeed, some one-half of Africa’s 90,000 elephants are in Gabon. It is a real treasure that attracts greed, especially that of poachers. “We are almost at war, a localized one, but a war all the same,” warns Joseph Okouyi.
And it’s not just about protecting an endangered species. “The same criminal groups are also trafficking drugs and humans,” says Lee White.
“Pigmy people are used, sometimes against their will, as hunters by Bantu people from Cameroon or Nigeria, who then sell the ivory to Pakistani mafias who dispatch it to China,” explains Okouyi. “There’s a strong pressure from abroad and we can’t win this fight alone."
What is new — and has Libreville duly worried — is the link between these poachers’ networks and rebel or jihadist groups in the region who are financing part of their activities thanks to illegal ivory trade. The margins are tempting indeed. Bought at $100 per kilogram in the forest, poached ivory ends up on the Chinese market, the main outlet, at $2,000 per kilo.
“We realized this two years ago after a huge slaughter in the Central African Republic: 200 animals killed in one go by Sudanese rebels,” remembers Joseph Okouyi. When asked about the infiltration of Boko Haram-linked elements in northern Gabon, President Bongo says it’s a “credible working hypothesis.”
In the camp of Lélé, where the borders of Gabon, Cameroon and Congo meet, seven unarmed "ecoguards' are backed up by two police officers equipped with one single gun. True, a year ago, there were no security forces in these parts. But at that pace, the war is far from being won.