In the forest clearing locals call the “Village of Elephants,” or Dzanga Bai, 17 heavily armed men arrived on Wednesday, May 8, with AK-47s. They were bound for the observation tower where tourists in the Central African Republic have often come to admire the forest elephants, and where researchers have worked to decipher the language of elephants for more than 20 years.
“I’m used to being around carcasses and I know what people are capable of.”
It was over in a few horrific minutes.
When guards who had previously been disarmed by rebel forces went back yesterday, May 9, they counted the butchered carcasses of 26 elephants killed for their ivory, including four babies.
The killing happened in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area, in the southwest corner of the country, on the border with Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Dzanga Bai itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2010, the CBS show 60 Minutes described it as “one of the most magical places on Earth.”
At least for the moment, Seleka rebel forces have ordered the poachers out of the area, according to Anna Feistner of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who worked there until a few weeks ago. The rebels now control the government in the Central African Republic (or CAR). But they do not necessarily control their own forces in the field, she said. “Many of them come in from other countries and do not recognize the hierarchy or the government.”
A consortium of concerned groups, including UNESCO, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), together with various national governments, is now pressuring the government in Banqui, the capital, to send a military force to the Dzanga-Sangha area and bring rebel gangs under control. But no one knows if the poachers at Dzanga Bai were themselves part of a rebel group, said Feistner, or if they belong to the Sudanese poaching gangs that have worked in the area in recent years. She plans to head back to the Cameroon border on May 14 to keep up political pressure to protect the elephants.
The bloody tusks themselves will almost certainly end up in China, where a seemingly insatiable demand for ivory knickknacks has recently driven the price for ivory to $1,300 a pound. The fear is that rising Chinese demand, together with the continuing violence and political chaos in the CAR, will enable wholesale poaching to resume, possibly on the scale of last year’s killing of 300 elephants in a nearby national park in Cameroon.
The good news, and the tragedy, is that the surviving elephants are unlikely to return to Dzanga Bai any time soon. “One of the reasons it’s been possible to watch the elephants there is that they felt protected and safe,” said Feister. “So this is awful, really, especially since a lot of the shooting happened from the platform where Andrea Turkalo has been studying them for years, and that tourists have visited. The animals will probably have dispersed” into the forest of Dzanga-Ndoki National Park to the south.
Turkalo, a Massachusetts biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, also left the area a few weeks ago because of the escalating violence. She has been studying elephant communication at Dzanga Bai since 1991, and over the years has identified more than 4,000 elephants there—with about 1,400 individual elephants using the Bai in any given year. She knows many of the regulars by name and even by voice.
Reached by phone on May 9, Turkalo recalled a brief return visit to her research camp in April 2013, just before she left for the United States. “The first thing I noticed was the look in peoples’ eyes. They were demoralized and frightened. I’m the lucky one. I get to leave. They have to stay, it’s their country.”
Turkalo said she has been hardening herself for what happened this week. “I’ve worked in the Central African Republic for 30 years on the ground. I was in the north when the Sudanese poachers hammered all the savannah elephants along the Chadian border. I’m used to being around carcasses, and I know what people are capable of. I knew the situation was deteriorating. When you work with a known population of animals, you’ve really got to prepare yourself for the inevitable. I’m pretty good about handling death and other emotional issues. You have to be that way, or it’s just too rough.”
Like many in the environmental community, she reserved her outrage mainly for the Chinese customers who regard ivory trinkets as a symbol of status rather than shame and who are now rapidly driving elephant populations across Africa to extinction.
Shortly before she left the CAR, a Chinese company had arrived in the area with a permit to mine gold and diamonds in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area. The mining company also evacuated the area briefly, but “hey, came back a week ago with the Seleka protecting them. It’s the typical situation. You see this over and over in Africa. When the chaos starts, that’s the time for moving commodities—things like diamonds and ivory, and this is what’s happening now. We can’t protect the elephants, but we can protect the Chinese taking out the diamonds.”
Turkalo does not know when she will be able to get back to Dzanga Bai. But she recalled her last ordinary day there, on March 23, 2013. “The weather was perfect. There was a slight breeze. The light was magnificent. In the late afternoon, you get these long rays and a golden aura. I think there were about 80 elephants, and there was a new calf that day with a female I’d known for 20 years, named Delta. If I had to have a last day anywhere, that was the day I would have chosen.”
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Richard Conniff is the author of seven books, including his latest, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. He has won a National Magazine Award, a Gerald Loeb Award, and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. His articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He has written and presented television shows for networks including the National Geographic Channel, TBS, and the BBC. TakePart.com