In Gabon, Ecotourism Vs. Elephant Poachers

12,000 of the region's 25,000 elephants have already been decimated
12,000 of the region's 25,000 elephants have already been decimated
Christophe Châtelot

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.

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Protests against gasoline price hikes in Lebanon

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Wai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where leaked documents show how some countries are lobbying to change a key report on climate change, Moscow announces new full lockdown and the world's first robot artist is arrested over spying allegations. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt looks at the rapprochement between two leaders currently at odds with Europe: UK's BoJo and Turkey's Erdogan.

[*Bodo - India, Nepal and Bengal]


• Documents reveal countries lobbying against climate action: Leaked documents have revealed that some of the world's biggest fossil fuel and meat producing countries, including Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to water down a UN scientific report on climate change and pushing back on its recommendations for action, less than one month before the COP26 climate summit.

• COVID update: The city of Moscow plans to reintroduce lockdown measures next week, closing nearly all shops, bars and restaurants, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a nationwide seven-day workplace shutdown from Oct. 30 to combat the country's record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, India has crossed the 1 billion vaccinations milestone.

• India and Nepal floods death toll passes 180: Devastating floods in Nepal and the two Indian states of Uttarakhand and Kerala have killed at least 180 people, following record-breaking rainfall.

• Barbados elects first ever president: Governor general Dame Sandra Mason has been elected as Barbados' first president as the Caribbean island prepares to become a republic after voting to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.

• Trump to launch social media platform: After being banned from several social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would launch his own app called TRUTH Social in a bid "to fight back against Big Tech." The app is scheduled for release early next year.

• Human remains found in hunt for Gabby Petito's fiance: Suspected human remains and items belonging to Brian Laundrie were found in a Florida park, more than one month after his disappearance. Laundrie was a person of interest in the murder of his fiancee Gabby Petito, who was found dead by strangulation last month.

• Artist robot detained in Egypt over spying fear: Ai-Da, the world's ultra-realistic robot artist, was detained for 10 days by authorities in Egypt where it was due to present its latest art works, over fears the robot was part of an espionage plot. Ai-Da was eventually cleared through customs, hours before the exhibition was due to start.


"Nine crimes and a tragedy," titles Brazilian daily Extra, after a report from Brazil's Senate concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government had failed to act quickly to stop the deadly coronavirus pandemic, accusing them of crimes against humanity.


Erdogan and Boris Johnson: A new global power duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too, write Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung in German daily Die Welt.

🇹🇷🇬🇧 According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey. The country has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

⚠️ Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey. She never supported French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU. But now that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

🤝 At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense. The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016.

➡️


"He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life."

— David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter, following the announcement that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was awarded the 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders. Navalny, who survived a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, is praised for his "immense personal bravery" in fighting Putin's regime. The European Parliament called for his immediate release from jail, as Russian authorities opened a new criminal case against the activist that could see him stay in jail for another decade.



Chinese video platform Youku is under fire after announcing it is launching a new variety show called in Mandarin Squid's Victory (Yóuyú de shènglì) on social media, through a poster that also bears striking similarities with the visual identity of Netflix's current South Korean hit series Squid Game. Youku apologized by saying it was just a "draft" poster.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Anyone want to guess Trump's first post on his upcoming social media platform...? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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