Holding out hope in the elephants' last stronghold in Central Africa

The TRIDOM landscape, spanning three countries, is under increasing threat from poaching for ivory, mining and unsustainable logging. But conservation gains in recent years signal a glimmer of hope.

Michel Gunther / WWF

Forestry road west of Minkébé Forest, Gabon

TRIDOM, a cluster of three protected areas spread over Cameroon, the Republic of Congo and Gabon, gets its name from the initials of the respective locations – "Dja, Odzala and Minkebe." TRIDOM is more than four times the size of Switzerland – a 178,000 km² tropical rainforest landscape made up of 11 protected areas covering 42,319 km² and connected by a large forested inter-zone; 97% per cent of TRIDOM is covered by forest.

TRIDOM is the natural habitat for more than 20,000 elephants, over 60,000 gorillas and chimpanzees, buffaloes, bongos, giant forest hogs, sitatunga, pythons, crocodiles, African grey parrots, crowned eagles, and over 10 species of monkeys.

A recent biomonitoring report showed a shocking 66 per cent decline in the forest elephant population in eight years in Central Africa. The reality in TRIDOM is even worse. In Cameroon, the decline in elephant populations is documented at 80 per cent since 2008, and 2014-2016 surveys show there has been a further decline.

Though elephant poaching has always existed, it was relatively low until 2006 when global ivory prices spiked. The price went from $20 per kilo in 2006 to $200 or more in 2012. The prices have since stabilised, but the combination of a large elephant stock, the tenfold rise in prices, existing elephant poaching habits and the emergence of an ivory mafia have made TRIDOM a poaching hotspot.

Given these threats, it is impossible to sit on the sidelines. WWF is active in the Republic of Congo and South Cameroon, where we work with the respective government agencies in charge of parks and wildlife and support ranger patrols and equipment, information gathering, and assist judiciary experts and law firms in the law enforcement process. The conservation efforts in the region led to the elephant population in Messok Dja Northern Congo stabilizing between 2013 and 2016.

Our teams in South Cameroon and Northern Congo collaborate across borders, including with Gabon, to assist with elephant conservation, logging concessions and protecting effective corridors between the protected area networks. This calls for regular large mammal surveys to assess the status of elephants and great apes, support improved park management and create new protected areas like Messok Dja in the Republic of Congo.

Even as there’s progress, at times it’s difficult to be hopeful. Elephants are continually under pressure for their ivory as prices remain high and provide a formidable incentive for poachers and ivory traffickers, despite ongoing arrests and prosecutions. When we add TRIDOM’s large size, the fact that it is hard to secure, the reality that ivory traffickers are often released without serving their sentence because of corruption and an existing prison system that cannot cater for the high numbers of poachers and traffickers being arrested – the reality is disheartening.

WWF strongly feels that governments must apply the law to its fullest extent and the world needs to invest in dissuasive measures to prevent elephant poaching in this last stronghold.

There are glimmers of hope, like the ground teams. TRIDOM has around 400 government agency rangers involved in the anti-poaching effort. I am most familiar with the “Espace TRIDOM Congo Interzone” ranger team in Northern Congo. It is fully supported by WWF, and therefore well supervised and equipped. This has ensured that Messok Dja’s elephant numbers have remained stable between 2013 and 2016. However, rangers’ lives are generally hard because they are away from their families a lot, but the chance to be part of a well-motivated team helps. Even so, all the ranger forces need strong support, equipment, performance mechanisms, and supervision to be effective.

Additionally, as conservation efforts grow, so does the team of financial and technical partners – which now includes the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the European Union, the French Cooperation, UNESCO, Global Environment Facility (GEF), through UNDP and The World Bank, andfoundations like Segre, Philantropia, Adelle, Arcus, and others, African Parks, WCS, ZSL, AWF and WWF.

There are also success stories like Messok Dja, where elephant populations have stabilized. Here, WWF and partners support the government to create new protected areas through a co-management agreement that has proved the value of a dedicated 25-man ground team.

The emergence of more solid forms of government and NGO partnerships to manage parks and wildlife is a positive evolution. WWF just signed a co-management agreement for the Ntokou Pikounda National Park in the Republic of Congo where the government’s park agency and WWF will both be accountable for the parks’ management. This is the way to go to save elephants in the context of weak governance and the enduring poaching crisis.

In the next few years, we hope for a mosaic of well-managed protected areas and logging concessions that provide effective safe habitats for wildlife and generate lots of carbon finance to help save forests from logging or induce reduced impact logging. We hope for larger elephant habitats, and that low ivory prices will allow elephant numbers to recover. We expect that anti-poaching forces will rise with the capacity to effectively prevent elephant poaching, and deal with wildlife criminals through decisive actions like long prison sentences.

We expect increased economic benefits for communities living close to the elephants who demonstrate good wildlife stewardship. We hope that the governments and people of Cameroon, Republic of Congo, and Gabon will be proud of their exceptional rainforest and wildlife heritage as it is one of the most impressive rainforests in the world, with trees that reach 3 meters in diameter and are inhabited by large wildlife such as the elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and some 10 species of antelopes. We hold onto hope that our joint efforts will bear fruit for generations to come.

Pauwel de Wachter

Pauwel has worked for WWF's programme in TRIDOM for over 20 years. As Coordinator, Pauwel is responsible for building a coherent WWF program in the TRIDOM landscape, in collaboration with governments, partners and stakeholders. The main threats in the landscape include rampant ivory poaching, bushmeat trade, large-scale mining & infrastructure development and unsustainable and illegal logging.

What are your thoughts?