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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

A Witness to Violence

July 31, 2008

By J. Michael Fay

photo ©Tim Flach/Stone/Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, I arrived in Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris National Park in the northern Central African Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer to be the botanist for an elephant project. It was a dream job. They gave me a dirt bike and said, go out into this vast African wilderness and collect every plant you can find. The park covered grassy floodplains and wooded savanna. I built a cozy camp down in its southern reaches, where there were beautiful, rich gallery forests full of life. I often saw elephants, sometimes in herds hundreds strong. There were a fair number of black rhino roaming the landscape, too. I found hundreds of plant species and learned them all. But, quickly, I was distracted by the most horrific killing a person could ever witness.

I often made long forays off any dirt road deep into the park. More often than not, I would be cruising along and the familiar stench of rotting elephant would make that knot form in my throat. Day after day we would find them: piles of dead elephants, sometimes 20 or more in an area the size of a basketball court. There they would be lying, mostly females with a few younger individuals, their faces hacked off and their scant tusks carried away. As I circled the carcasses, yet another terror would reveal itself. There were horse tracks all around, the haunches of the elephants had four-inch-wide wounds in them, and the trunks were sliced in half from tip to face.

These were signs that the hunters were Arab horsemen who came from Sudan in horse and camel caravans. They traveled across hundreds of kilometers of hot savanna to visit these lands that their ancestors had, for centuries, raided for slaves and ivory. The elephants in the park were their target, and they would leave their camps in hunting parties to track the elephants on horseback. These horsemen were the same types of bands—the Janjaweed—who would become infamous decades later for raiding Sudanese villages in Darfur.

Their old-fashioned yet lethal method was to get within range of the elephants and gallop forward, their spears with two-foot-long blades at the ready. The animals would stampede. The horsemen would charge and hamstring any elephant within range, plunging their spears deep into the perfect debilitating spot, and then go for another. Once the remaining elephants escaped, the horsemen would double back, and using their sabers, slice the trunks of the downed animals, who would then bleed into enormous pools that we would find blackened in the scorching sun. To see these elephants—animals we followed daily, observing their gentle nature, their nurturing ways, their intelligence—lifeless and bloated transformed us.

It transformed us from scientists who came to Africa to study natural history into people who thought only about death—death of elephants, of wildlife—and how to stop those who were doing the killing. We started carrying guns and made feeble attempts to stem the bloody tide, but it was hopeless.

At the same time, the government of the Central African Republic was harvesting and selling hundreds of tons of legalized ivory. Between 1971 and 1984, the Central African Republic exported at least 33,000 elephants’ worth of ivory. This didn’t include the thousands of tusks that went into Sudan. But no one was being held accountable for the slaughter in a national park.

In 1985, Iain Douglas-Hamilton landed in our camp. It was the wet season, and Andrea Turkalo and I were the only two Europeans within a radius of over 160 kilometers. We had a team of 12 park guards armed with World War II rifles.

Iain had come with Jean-Marc Froment to do a sample count of the entire region in order to quantify wildlife populations and elephant killing. As the days wore on, Iain became furious to the point of deep depression. They were finding dead elephants everywhere. On the fourth day of the survey, Iain flew low over the camp, having spotted carcasses just to the south. We arrived on the scene to find 12 dead elephants. They had been killed the evening before. The haunches had those familiar slashes, and the blood was still red. The killers had not yet returned to claim the tusks.

Iain had witnessed massive slaughter of elephants in Uganda a few years before, but his Central African Republic counts seemed impossible. The final number was estimated at 5,840 dead elephants to 2,701 live ones. At this rate, there would be no elephants left in the northern Central African Republic in less than a decade.

At the time, Iain was also embroiled in the continent-wide ivory wars. His data indicated that poaching was decimating elephant populations in not just the Central African Republic but also nearly everywhere else in Africa. The price of ivory had risen to over US$200 a kilo, and the poachers would stop at nothing to get it.

America was one of the largest consumers of worked ivory. I wrote my mother about the killing. She wrote complaints to two upscale American department stores which had catalogs full of gorgeous ivory bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. She got a letter back from a public relations person who said that their ivory was certified as legally harvested. Seeing the slaughter firsthand and the rampant trade into Sudan, we knew it was not difficult to falsify certification.

At the same time, the debate among the suits at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—whose job was to stop the animal trade from endangering wildlife—was not about the slaughter, but about whether all these observations from the field were accurate.

Jean-Marc and Iain went to Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital, and showed President André Kolingba pictures of the carnage and the numbers of dead elephants they had found. It wasn’t hard to convince the president: Sudanese horsemen had shot at him when he landed his helicopter in an elephant-poaching camp only a few months before. Kolingba immediately issued a decree to outlaw the ivory trade in the Central African Republic and promised to make things happen.

By 1988, Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris National Park had become a United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site. By 1989, the slaughter of elephants had become so obvious that the CITES Conference of Parties decided to ban the international trade of ivory.

Soon after the ban was in place, the bottom fell out of the market. Traders who had stockpiles of ivory couldn’t sell it. Airlines would no longer take their shipments. Many poachers stopped hunting elephant because it was hardly worth their while. The full-scale international ban on ivory was working, at least in part.

But the Sudanese horsemen kept coming to the northern Central African Republic. There was still an illegal ivory market. As elephant numbers diminished and black rhinos went extinct, the raiders started killing buffalo and antelope on a grand scale. They would smoke the meat and caravan it back to Darfur—which, during the drought of 1984, brought them good money and some sustenance.

In 2005, I went back to the Central African Republic. I had a copy of Iain’s report and a plan to fly his exact survey to replicate his study. In Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris National Park, the guards were not being paid and were not patrolling. The park seemed abandoned.

We counted only 74 elephants in the entire park. The killing was continuing. We found fresh elephant carcasses with telltale speared haunches. We found piles of dead elephants with their tusks hacked from their faces. It was obvious where this was going: toward complete extinction of the elephant in the entire north and east of the Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, and northern Democratic Republic of Congo. In three decades, an area that may have contained 100,000 elephants had been emptied.

We found the same to be true for most other species of wildlife in Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris Park. The estimate for giraffe had gone from 1,492 to 223 and for buffalo from 8,078 to 1,489. For the nine major species—including hartebeest, topi, and kob—estimated populations dropped by over 87 percent. In the north of the park, in an area where well over 200,000 antelope had roamed in the 1960s, there were none. All we saw were some 10,000 refugees who had fled the Janjaweed raiders from the north.

This brought back the piercing memory of a paper Richard Ruggiero and I had written 20 years earlier. Richard had firsthand experience with the Sudanese horsemen because he had worked in antipoaching in Manovo in the mid-1980s. We had written that, if the killing continued and the international community did not intervene, these horsemen would not stop at elephants and antelope. We predicted that they would start killing people and destabilize the entire region. Now the United Nations has a major international crisis on its hands. The world community is spending billions just trying to keep people alive. The northern Central African Republic has become a no-man’s-land.

The international response to this violence and destabilization has been sporadic. In October 2006, the French military sent Mirage fighter jets from Chad to bomb Ndele and Birao, two towns near Manovo-Gounda-St. Floris Park. They were bombing so-called rebels who had taken these towns by force. Darfur was now experiencing massive genocide at the hands of the Janjaweed, the same groups who had carried out the mass extermination of elephants—not just in the Central African Republic but also in southwest Sudan and northeast Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nearly 20 years after the ivory ban was enacted, CITES faces more critical decisions about the fate of elephants. In 2007, CITES approved the sale of 60 tons of elephant ivory from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to Japan. Similar sales will likely be proposed in the future, with some arguing that places such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park are overcrowded with elephants that should be culled.

But groups like the Janjaweed are already using illegal ivory sales to fund their activities; allowing a limited, legal trade may serve only to bolster the world’s ivory appetite and further embolden poachers. Should our leaders make decisions that could again unleash the illegal trade that has blighted men and elephants for the past century? Should they make decisions that reach far beyond elephants and could lead to destabilization and hardship for humans in southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo?

There are better solutions. There are alternatives to culling, such as allowing elephants in overcrowded parks to wander into new territory. Another solution can be seen in Kenya, where leaders decided in 1989 to champion a fight to stop the ivory trade because of its obvious impacts: It made parks meaningless, invited poaching and violence into rural areas, and spurred government corruption. As a result, elephant populations have been steadily increasing in Tsavo National Park, which not long ago was the poaching wars’ epicenter.

My experiences with the elephant slaughter, deforestation, and the general degradation of the wild over the past 25 years have led me to a few conclusions. If you live on the landscape day after day, year after year, you realize that you do not need the absolute proof of science to act. Often the trends are as real as massive piles of dead elephants at your feet. If you witness these things—that will obviously impact the future of wild places—you must ask your politicians to act, because others with less noble motives are already doing so.

Ice sheets melting, forests dying, and fish disappearing are all real, just as the killing of elephants was in the 1980s. Yet our politicians are either leading us to believe that the scientific evidence is not sufficient or they are acting much too late—and with no accountability. It is high time we pay attention to what we witness so clearly with our own eyes and that we require our leaders to direct us toward a future that can sustain the presence of 6.5 to 9 billion people on this earth.

The killing of elephants in central Africa should not have been ignored two decades ago. Their populations suffered greatly and have not been given the chance to rebound, because of another problem we ignored: violent cross-border raids by the Janjaweed. As CITES decides what to do about ivory and Africa decides what to do about elephant populations in parks that are not large enough, we shouldn’t be tempted to think that culling thousands of elephants and selling their tusks is a solution to anything.

From State of the Wild 2008-2009 by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Copyright ©2008 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. To order, please visit or call 1-800-621-2736.

About the Author
J. Michael Fay is an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and an Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society. His writing has appeared in Best American Science and Nature Writing.

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