July 2013 transfer of elephants from the Marahoue National Park to the Azagny National Park
Maureen Grisot

DALOA — The Ivory Coast was on the verge of losing its last forest elephants. It is a risk with some bitter irony, as elephants are the emblem of the nation.

So a rescue operation like those already carried out in Zambia and Malawi, but unprecedented in West Africa, was launched at the end of July: the transfer of several of the pachyderms — five tons each — from the outskirts of Daloa, in the center of the county, 400 kilometers further south to the Azagny National Park.

Originally, the herd that was transferred had been living peacefully in the Marahoué National Park, near Daloa. But, little by little, this natural habitat has become devastated by farming as well as fraudulent wood exploitation and unrestrained poaching.

Indeed, the Ivory Coast is — like parts of central Africa — a prime hunting ground for international ivory trafficking, which has become an important source of revenue for armed groups. The chaos that followed the post-electoral crisis in 2011 between the supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara accelerated the movement, allowing a mass arrival of planters. This led to the disappearance of the Marahoué Park: 80% of its surface has now been overtaken by agriculture.

Source: Marahoué National Park

The elephants, pushed out of the park, found refuge in a forest outside the city of Daloa. Living alongside the hamlets’ inhabitants turned out to be complicated, and led to the deaths of at least three people.

“At first, we were curious. It was the first time we saw any,” resident Oscar Sery recalls of the elephant migration there. “But they soon were destroying everything, and we had nothing left to eat. They went from being sacred animals to being our enemies.”

Lke many villagers, Sery says he thought about shooting the giant intruders, but no one actually did. “We know elephants are protected and we love them. They are the symbol of our country. Thankfully, people came to take them away.”

Today, the Ivorian government estimates there are fewer than 900 elephants on its territory — forest and bush elephants combined. Scientists say even those numbers may be higher than reality.

Aware that every specimen is precious, Abidjan asked the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to find a solution for Daloa’s pachyderms. The NGO concluded that the Azagny National Park, more than 500 kilometers to the south, was the only park able to offer suitable living conditions for the elephants.

A risky relocation

The transfer began on Jan. 20. “Forest elephants live in an ecosystem with very dense vegetation,” explains Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, head of IFAW France and its affiliates in French-speaking Africa. “They are very discreet and silent, so you can easily find yourself facing one out of nowhere, which is very dangerous.”

Photo: IFAW

The NGO called upon a dozen people, including several specialists from South Africa, to actually carry out this rescue-transfer operation. “Forest elephants are currently the most endangered species, because of poaching and the destruction of their habitat. These are the last ones in West Africa,” says Sissler-Bienvenu.

The IFAW donors invested more than 180,000 euros — the Ivory Coast about twice that — to help finance this very delicate operation.

How did it actually work? Once the animal was located by the trackers, the different teams set off to follow it by pickup and on foot, or when the vegetation allowed, by helicopter: The veterinarian only had a few seconds to shoot the animal with an anesthetic dart.

It then took up to eight minutes for the sedative to kick in, during which the elephant kept on moving but could fall anywhere. One of them, who fell into a muddy river, died despite the efforts of the specialists. “We gave him the antidote, but he had already drowned,” recalled one of the team members. “We did everything we could, but keeping a safe distance is essential because it can charge at anyone closer than 20 meters.” Another male elephant died of a heart attack after it was hit by a dart. In total, four elephants were safely captured over a period of eight days.

On Jan. 22, a large male was lifted onto the trailer of a truck with a crane. The villagers who gathered around the sleeping animal pulled out a few of his hairs, or took photos. “These are for my children so they believe me when I tell them we used to live with elephants,” says tracker Elton Lago, who snapped some photos.

Lago has mixed feelings about the departing herd. “A part of me is happy because they destroyed our plantations, but I will miss them, especially Plaisir,” the farmer smiles with nostalgia. “I gave him a name after we started giving him bananas and oranges. He played with us. We adopted him.”

The next step was for a truck to transport each of the animals to a specially designated area on the side of a concrete road, where the trailer was lowered to let the giant animal slide into its wake-up cage. After waking, each elephant went into another cage on a second truck, which then set off for Azagany National Park. There, 12 other elephants were waiting to welcome the relocated herd.

“We want to show that the Ivory Coast has the ability to preserve an endangered species,” says captain Joëlle Mailly, who heads the protection of fauna at the Ivorian ministry of water and forests. “Their safety will be perfectly ensured. We have para-commando units specially trained and equipped for this.”

Yes, even in their new location, the greatest danger will still be human poachers.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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