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Green Or Gone

Ahmed The Elephant, A Mystic Man-v-Nature Tale In Ivory Coast

The pachyderm was believed to have special powers, but was also seen as dangerous, and ultimately was transferred to a nature reserve. What does his story tell us?

Ahmed the elephant in the N'Zi nature reserve
Ahmed the elephant in the N'Zi nature reserve
Youenn Gourlay

BOUAKÉ — Despite his imposing size and dark gray skin, Ahmed the elephant passes almost unnoticed in the vast wooded savannah of the N'Zi nature reserve, northeast of the city of Bouaké. Karl Diakité, operations manager at N'Zi River Lodge, the reserve's ecotourism center, lowers his voice to a whisper as he describes the elephant's daily routine: "He has found a watering place, and feeds on roots, branches and bark. He's adapting himself gently to his new habitat."

Diakité is whispering because the elephant is only about 20 meters away. Trackers and rangers are also close by to ensure the safety of both the animal and that of nearby villages. The reserve is soon to be fenced off on 25,000 of its 41,000 hectares.

If Ahmed approaches the borders of the park, the human "presence makes him understand he must change his route," explains Pierre Zango, one of the rangers. But the goal remains, to interfere as little as possible so that he can have a wild life, far from the tumult of cities and villages — where he can kill and get killed.

For several months, Ahmed was the talk of the town in the south of Ivory Coast. In the small town of Guitri, 225 kilometers from Abidjan, everyone seems to have a story to tell about the big-eared animal believed to have left his herd in the Azagny Park on the coast for the rich plantations in the Guitri region.

When they asked he would dance.

"The children saw him wandering around and went to greet him like a minister," recalls Felix Kéké, a local chief in Guitri. "They played with him and called him Ahmed. When they asked, he would dance, and when they were hungry, he would beat the mango tree and make fruit fall."

Kéké continues with more details of the legend: "He was not like other elephants. He was like a mystic, he behaved like a man or a genius. Some people say that he was a villager who had the gift of transforming himself into an elephant using the water from a magic canari clay jar, and that one day someone broke the canari. From then on, he would be condemned to life as an elephant."

But Ahmed has not left only beautiful stories in his wake. The lost animal started ransacking plantations, eating fruit and even drinking bandji and koutoukou, artisanal palm alcohol made by the planters. "Some people threw gasoline to burn him, others shot him in the leg with a 12-gauge pistol," explains Gnamian Adjehi, who works with Kéké, "That's when he got angry and started targeting motorcycles and farm machinery."

Bertin Akpatou, a zoologist at the University of Félix-Houphouët-Boigny and director of the NGO Action for Biodiversity Conservation in Ivory Coast, says this kind of problem between humans and wildlife has occurred before. ACB-CI). "Uncontrolled human intrusion into natural environments like agriculture and (illicit) gold panning are conducive to these situations," Akpatou said. "The more human activities develop in their habitats, the more it perturbs elephants, which are migratory animals."

According to the researcher, the recent political crises are also to blame, "This has generated the movement of many populations. The state no longer has authority over forested areas, which have ultimately disappeared and been replaced by cocoa and other new crops such as rubber and palm oil."

According to the NGO Mighty Earth, 10 million out of 16 million hectares of forestland have been cleared since 1960, and seven of the 23 protected areas have been illegally converted into cocoa plantations. The country's booming population is certainly not expected to improve the situation. "If no long-lasting sustainable policies such as agroforestry or family farming are found, the phenomenon will continue," says Akpatou.

In recent months, more elephants have been reported near Fresco, on the coast, and in Sikensi, near the capital Abidjan. But there are only about 300 elephants left in the country, four times fewer than in 2001.

Part of the elephant population of Guitri was eventually captured by authorities, including Ahmed. A transfer was later organized with the help of a British veterinarian. Ahmed was temporarily put to sleep in the rubber tree fields. It took 25 minutes before he fell and a machine lifted him up and put him in a container for the Abidjan zoo.

The departure was a relief but also emotional for some. "When he left, it looked like he was the president of the Republic," said chief Kéké. People, especially children, were crying on the side of the road.

Once at Abidjan Zoo, which has been closed for auditing since early September after several scandals, Ahmed stepped over his enclosure and disappeared several times. Faced with this difficult situation, Richard Harvey, a British veterinarian, insisted on transferring the elephant to the N'Zi reserve as soon as possible. Karl Diakité and his team quickly welcomed him.

When he left, it looked like he was the president of the Republic.

"This is good news," notes Souleymane Ouattara, a zoologist specializing in elephants in Ivory Coast. "In the past, in the event of conflict, elephants were shot. Today, the state is changing its policy a little and is putting more resources into enhancing the value of wildlife. Moving an elephant is expensive!"

At N'Zi River Lodge, the arrival of Ahmed, the very first elephant in the reserve, is the culmination of 20 years of preserving the local fauna and flora. "We really want to attract the animals that lived here before poaching," says Diakité. "Maybe we can even recreate migratory zones between the different parks and reserves."

It's particularly timely message: "We have just learned that a herd of five elephants is currently approaching the reserve. They are less than 10 kilometers away. This would be the opportunity to finally achieve an old family dream: to create the first elephant sanctuary in the country."

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