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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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Geopolitics

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.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — 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. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey 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.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she 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.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. 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.

 Turkey's second largest export market

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. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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