Elephants return to rainforest after poachers hunted to extinction (Gabon)
Jonathan Clayton, The Times
September 2, 2022
The young tracker stopped abruptly, putting a finger to his lips to signal
that nobody should move. Through the half light of the thick forest, a
small herd of elephants appeared before gliding past.
Later, after wading through swamps and slipping on muddy banks, we came
upon gorillas eating fruit on a patch of marshland. A great silverback
fixed us with a glare, shrugged his shoulders and continued the feast.
Gabon’s equatorial rainforest, which covers 85 per cent of the country,
boasts the largest populations of gorillas and forest elephants in the
world. It is a rich environment where plants and animal species are still
Barely a decade ago, it was feared this abundance, a crucial part of the
much larger Congo Basin rainforest, the second largest in the world after
the Amazon, would be destroyed by 2020.
Back then visitors would more likely have stumbled upon elephant carcasses
with great empty chasms where their fine ivory tusks — pinker and more
valued than those of plains elephants — had been gouged out with chainsaws.
Poaching, illegal logging, gold mining and bushmeat hunters all threatened
its future. But the forest found a timely, albeit unlikely, saviour in the
form of “playboy” President Ali Bongo Ondimba, an enigmatic figure who took
over from his father Omar Bongo who ruled for 42 years until 2009.
The Sorbonne and Harvard-educated president with a penchant for the good
life, particularly Rolls-Royce cars, boats and champagne, once told The
Times that his challenge was to convince “my people that a tree left living
is more valuable than a tree cut down; an animal left alive is more
valuable than one dead”.
Growing up as the son of one of Africa’s longest-serving dictators, he
spent many months alone in presidential retreats deep in the forest, he
said. “I had few friends except the animals. I thought everyone had them at
the bottom of the garden.”
The man he chose to help him was a British-born zoologist. Professor Lee
White, a soft-spoken Mancunian of Scottish ancestry, had come to Gabon as a
student in 1989 and stayed on because it was a zoologist’s dream. First, he
became director of the national parks agency. Today, he is minister of the
environment and maritime affairs.
The two committed environmentalists make an unlikely pair but together they
declared war on the poachers with a ferocious commitment rarely seen
elsewhere on the continent. Armies of park rangers, armed to the teeth and
trained and equipped by the British army, fought back. Both sides took
casualties in bloody confrontations reminiscent of Latin America’s narco
The president passed tough pro-environment legislation, jailed ivory
smugglers, kicked out illegal loggers but, crucially, also allowed
businesses land for sustainable activities, including palm oil production
and legal logging as long as processing was done in the country. This
attracted criticism from the purists who want no interference with nature.
“To save the forest, you have to be able to exploit the forest,” White, now
57, said. “We have to encourage the private sector, only by giving the
forest value will people then ‘value’ it. It is all about management.”
Over the past ten years, Gabon — a former French colony which joined the
Commonwealth in June — has increased its elephant population by more than a
third to 95,000. Over the same period the population in the neighbouring
countries fell by 50 per cent. Gabon is also the most “carbon positive”
country in the world.
In recognition of its success, Gabon and White will lead the Africa side at
Cop27 talks this November in Egypt. Using Gabon as a model, they are now
turning their attention to saving the rest of the forest, most of which is
in Democratic Republic of Congo and disappearing fast as peasant farmers
slash and burn it away.
White argues that local people must be paid for not destroying the forest
and encouraged to adopt new farming techniques which they currently cannot
afford. The world should be willing to pay a minimum of $2.5 billion to the
DRC to finance an “agricultural revolution”, he said.
He added: “We know how to do tropical agriculture without slash and burn,
mulching compost and cow dung and growing legumes to fix the nitrogen in
the soil. The world should be willing to pay to finance an agricultural
revolution which is in the world’s interests.”
White says that if the forest is lost the result for the world will be
“cataclysmic”. It is known as the “lungs of the world” for good reason, and
contains eight years’ worth of global carbon emissions — 45 per cent locked
in its trees and 55 per cent in the soil.
Although the Amazon is three times larger, the Congo forest absorbs 100
times more carbon because it is much healthier. “It will mean the end of
rainfall in places like Ethiopia. The Nile running dry, the total implosion
of Africa with the danger of 500 million climate refugees . . . It is
make-or-break time, we are in another war we cannot afford to lose. Gabon
has shown it can be done,” declared White.