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What happened to the elephants of Bouba Ndjida? [warning: graphic photos]

‘And also, they were alive when the poachers started to cut off their faces’—Celine Sissler-Bienvenu.

Poached elephant on its knees with another lying dead behind it. Last year poachers killed an estimated 650 elephants in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
Poached elephant on its knees with another lying dead behind it. Last year poachers killed an estimated 650 elephants in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

A new report released by the Wildlife Conservation Society says that poachers have killed a staggering 62 percent of Africa’s forest elephants in the last decade. The insatiable demand for elephant ivory hails mainly from China and Thailand, which is ironically hosting this year’s CITES (CoP16) meeting. The meeting will continue until March 13 2013.

The study is based on a survey of five elephant range states including Cameroon. Cameroon is the home of Bouba Ndjida National Park, where the dizzying massacre of 650 elephants occurred last year. The first and only NGO to enter the park during the massacre was the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The expedition was led by Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, France and Francophone Africa’s Director for IFAW. Sissler-Bienvenu had previously studied the park’s elephants as a wildlife student and wrote a moving tribute to the park’s elephants while she surveyed the slaughter. Freelance reporter Christina Russo conducted an interview with Sissler-Bienvenu at the anniversary of the slaughter, to discuss some of the final understandings of what happened in Bouba Ndjida—and the chances of a slaughter happening again.


Shell casing from bullets used to kill elephants in Bouba Ndjida. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
Shell casing from bullets used to kill elephants in Bouba Ndjida. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

Mongabay: We are now at the one-year anniversary of the slaughter of elephants in Cameroon?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes.

Mongabay: When was the beginning of the massacre?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: It began at the beginning of January 2012.

Mongabay: When do you suspect the poaching of the elephants stopped?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu.
Celine Sissler-Bienvenu.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: At beginning of April 2012. The Cameroon soldiers [which were ultimately deployed to the park by the government] were on site at Bouba Ndjida until the end of April. So, we assume the poachers left in mid-April at the latest.

Mongabay: How many poachers do you think were complicit in the slaughter?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: The estimate is based on what local communities have told us. It was roughly between 50 and one hundred poachers. But they were pulling off into smaller groups of five or ten poachers. We also received information from a hunting guide about the numbers; he had been stopped by a group of 70 poachers. They kept him for a few hours and then released him.

Mongabay: This was a hunting guide familiar with the park?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. He has a hunting area around the park. In Cameroon, most of the protected areas are surrounded by hunting areas, which are managed by foreign guides. This was a French man, who came every season to the area.

Mongabay: Please tell me about the first clue you had that there was impending crisis in Bouba Ndjida?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: The first information came in early January; the news then was that poachers were headed to Cameroon. But also, we had heard rumors at the end of December that they were in Chad.

At the time, I was in Congo. By February, my contact on the ground in Bouba Ndjida said that he was hearing many shotguns and that elephants were being slaughtered. He also said he had contacted the authorities to let them know what was happening but there was no reaction by the authorities. That’s why he contacted me; he asked me if IFAW could do something.

Mongabay: This contact—he was in a safari lodge in the park?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. Exactly. It is a small lodge. Very, very small. Family sized.

Mongabay: He sent you photos of the elephants?

Trunk of slaughtered elephant. Photo by: © IFAW/A. Ndoumbe.
Trunk of slaughtered elephant. Photo by: © IFAW/A. Ndoumbe.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. When he asked me to do something, I asked that he go into the bush and take some photos so we can use them and show the evidence. He went with his team on the ground and at that time they located almost 200 carcasses already. And those were very close to easy access—these carcasses were right along the road. That is why he said the number would increase because some areas of the park—for example, in the north—were not very accessible. And that many elephants would ultimately be killed up in that area. And that was, in fact, the case.

Mongabay: Does this park have a main road that goes all the way through it?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: There are some roads, but during the rainy season you can’t drive on them. There is a road reaching the lodge and then you have different roads to visit the park…maybe two or three roads.

Mongabay: But these poachers were on horseback.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes.

Mongabay: It has been widely reported that the janjaweed did this—but in fact, you believe it was a different group?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: It is Sudanese and Chadian poachers who slaughtered those elephants. Their clothes and Arab language were part of the evidence. Many assumed it was the janjaweed who did the poaching as in the previous years, but the tribal clan of Rizeigat, an affiliated group to the janjaweed, is actually more likely to have been the poachers.

Mongabay: What kinds of weapons were used to kill the elephants?

An elephant calf killed by poachers. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
An elephant calf killed by poachers. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Military grade weapons such as AK47s. Also they had had Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and a lot of ammunitions. Bags of ammunition.

Mongabay: What was the final number of elephants dead?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: We didn’t total the number by ourselves, but by talking with local communities that were in contact with poachers, it appeared the poachers were conducting a kind of census on the number of elephants they had killed. By mid March, the number was 650. After that, the Cameroon government put 600 soldiers into the park. The first round of soldiers they put in was 300; when we arrived on the ground and asked for a military response this is what they sent. And then between March and April the Cameroon government sent in another 300. They also sent in one helicopter and two planes to conduct aerial surveys.

Mongabay: To be sure, the poachers were absolutely indiscriminate?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. They killed all the members of the herd. They were following herds and killing all of them. Including the babies.

Mongabay: One thing you found as you surveyed the elephant slaughter, was that parts of their ears were cut off?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes, We noticed that on each of the elephants, except for the calves, they had a part of their ears cut in a circle form. We were informed this was a habit of the Sudanese mainly. That it was not a Cameroonian habit. It is like a trophy that the poachers wanted to get for them for each elephant killed.

Mongabay: According to IFAW, many if not most of the elephants were alive when their tusks were hacked off?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. Because some of the elephants had just one shot in the body. And also this was based on the position that they were in when they were found…some of them were on their knees—in a kneeling position. So they were still alive when the poachers cut their trunks. They suffocated. And also, they were alive when the poachers started to cut off their faces.

Mongabay: With a machete?

Aerial view of slaughtered elephant family. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
Aerial view of slaughtered elephant family. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. And they were also using some kind of dagger because we saw some lacerations where the vital organs were. We think they were often finishing off the animal with a knife or dagger

We also noticed that those kinds of lacerations were on some calves, which was surprising. We think, in fact, it was a kind of training—a way for a poacher to be trained on killing elephants. Or we also think it may have been a tactic: to torture the younger elephants to get the adults to come around. So they can kill them all.

Mongabay: How long have you been working on wildlife issues?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: For 12 years.

Mongabay: Had you seen anything as brutal as this?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: No. Not at that scale. Because the poaching has really changed. The face of poaching has changed because before it was more subsistence poaching—except in the 80s. But it was not to feed the Asian market and not done that way. So now we clearly see a very organized way of poaching and it comes with a very strong determination. It is really organized—as would be military gangs. It is very, very well organized—and it does not give a chance to the animals to survive. It is very well planned.

Mongabay: What was the Cameroon’s government’s response to IFAW’s factual expedition into Bouba Ndjida?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: To be honest, the government was not really happy that we informed the media globally of what was happening in Bouba Ndjida and that we went on site to document this slaughter and their late reaction.

Mongabay: Did you have any security whilst in the park?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: No we did not. However, the assumption was that poachers would leave the park with the presence of hundreds soldiers. But the poachers were really determined and even with that military presence within the park, they continued to kill elephants very close to the lodge [where IFAW stayed]. We heard their shotguns, and a fight between the soldiers and the poachers, which left one soldier and one poacher dead. After that day of fighting between the soldiers and poachers, we had to leave as the risk became really high for our team.

Mongabay: Did the Cameroon government ever arrest anyone for the poaching?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu standing next to elephant corpse in Bouba Ndjida National Park. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
Celine Sissler-Bienvenu standing next to elephant corpse in Bouba Ndjida National Park. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: No. No one has been arrested. Beyond that, I question myself every day to know where is that ivory? Every week now there are big seizures in the world and so far we don’t know if this ivory is from Bouba Ndjida or not. I hope one day we will know. And to whom the ivory was sold.

Mongabay: Where do you think it went?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: It is out of Cameroon and probably went back to Sudan and now back outside of Sudan. What we know is that those gangs of poachers killed the elephants because they know they can make profit from the ivory and if they make profit to fund their wars or whatever, they know whom to sell the ivory to—and it seems very easy. Also, they were quite secured; these poachers did not have any problems doing this on such a big scale. We still have many questions about how they could do that for so long [in Bouba Ndjidja] at that level.

Mongabay: Can you clarify one point: do poachers enter Bouba Ndjida every year?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Not in particular, but every year in dry season poachers would follow the Sudanese Axe—a “trail” that goes from Sudan to North Central Africa Republic (CAR), South Chad and to now Cameroon to kill the elephants. And those gangs of poachers are the ones who killed the elephants in Zakouma National Park in Chad in the early 2000s. But now Zakouma is more secure and Chad has taken the lead in Central Africa to protect elephants; the government has provided equipment and training to rangers. In fact, it is probably why the poachers decided to head to Cameroon. And we know that today there is a rumor that poachers are around again—they came back around in November (2012). They were in CAR in January—maybe a group of 150 or 200—and they were heading to Chad. And now from Chad there are rumors they are in Cameroon and back to Bouba Ndjida. But this year, the park has hundreds of soldiers on the ground, so we hope this will deter poachers from entering and killing the elephants.

The other problems is most of the elephants who lived in Bouba Ndjida have left the park because of the poaching pressure. They went to Chad in an area where it is not protected. We hope poachers won’t find them.

What is important here to say also is that more than half of the elephant population of Bouba Ndjida National Park has been killed. Which means it will take at least 50 years to come back to the level of population that previously existed. We don’t know how this will affect the surviving elephants, especially if they were young. We know some of them might develop behavioral problems after having watched other elephants being slaughtered.

Mongabay: You have spent a considerable time in Cameroon?

Elephant corpses. Photo courtesy of IFAW.
Elephant corpses. Photo courtesy of IFAW.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes, I did my studies in Cameroon. So I was used to working in protected areas watching elephants and the western lowland gorillas. I studied them in their habitat. I was probably seeing the ones who were slaughtered.

Mongabay: Do you plan to visit Bouba Ndjida this year?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: Yes. I will go on site in May to assess the anti-poaching support training that IFAW set up and which is about to start Mid-March till end of May.

Mongabay: CITES is taking place today as we speak. Has the events of Cameroon been taken seriously by CITES members?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: I hope. And that the lessons learned will be put in action. CITES needs to realize that elephants need more protection and that fighting poaching requires cooperation between all the governments of the elephant range states in Africa. But beyond the elephant range states, I think every country and government has a responsibility. Beyond the fact we are losing a species for ivory consumption in Asia—mainly China and Thailand—this slaughter demonstrated that the national security of the country was not in place. That’s really worrying because those poachers were very well armed and had to come from far away. They went right into another country. Cameroon demonstrated a very clear itinerary. So, that raises real questions of security. And, of course, wildlife trafficking is a transnational crime operated by organized crime, and if you really want to succeed in stopping it, you must employ all the enforcement agencies—otherwise we will lose the battle to save the elephants.

Mongabay: You are in France. What was the response to the Cameroon slaughter there?

Elephants suffered a gruesome death. Photo by: © IFAW/A. Ndoumbe.
Elephants suffered a gruesome death. Photo by: © IFAW/A. Ndoumbe.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: I think in Europe, people really looked at it as horrible. The ivory trade is banned in Europe and I think people didn’t believe that this kind of poaching could happen again. The public was horrified. On the government side, the EU plays a very influential role at CITES and has always been in favor of the one-off sale, and always discussing the possibility to resume the ivory trade. I think for the EU it has been an electro-shock, which showed that as it pertains to the one off sales, they made some mistakes. At CITES this year, the EU and other parties should not speak about elephants so much which is good. It also gives them a chance to speak about other threatened species.

Mongabay: Do you think China and Thailand are legitimately trying to stop the ivory trade in their countries?

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu: When you see the price of ivory items in China, it is very high. It is wealthy people who can buy it. A poll IFAW conducted showed 70% of the people we polled didn’t realize ivory was coming from dead elephants. They thought tusks were falling naturally. The Chinese government tried to contend with the ivory issue but I am really convinced the main issue is the domestic market. As long as we have legal, domesticated ivory markets we will have poaching. If we close these domesticated markets, we have a chance. Otherwise, we won’t succeed because the demand is so high. I know there aren’t enough elephants alive on the planet to feed the Asian demand. China and Thailand have to really address this problem seriously.

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