OYEM, Gabon — This lush country, often called a “forest republic,” used to stand proudly apart from its shaky neighbors, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, tropical disaster zones where state failure, rebel marauders and loose weapons conspired to spell doom for endangered wildlife.
Gabon’s government, blessed with billions of dollars of oil money and miles and miles of virgin rain forest, has made many of the right moves to protect its animals by setting aside chunks of land for national parks, actually paying wildlife rangers on time (a rarity in Africa) and recently destroying a towering mountain of ivory in a statement of its refusal to look the other way.
But as the price of ivory keeps going up, hitting levels too high for many people to resist, Gabon’s elephants are getting slaughtered by poachers from across the borders and within the rain forests, proof that just about nowhere in Africa are elephants safe.
In the past several years, 10,000 elephants in Gabon have been wiped out, some picked off by impoverished hunters creeping around the jungle with rusty shotguns and willing to be paid in sacks of salt, others mowed down en masse by criminal gangs that slice off the dead elephants’ faces with chain saws. Gabon’s jails are filling up with small-time poachers and ivory traffickers, destitute men and women like Therese Medza, a village hairdresser arrested a few months ago for selling 45 pounds of tusks.
“I had no idea it was illegal,” Ms. Medza said, almost convincingly, from the central jail here in Oyem, in the north. “I was told the tusks were found in the forest.”
She netted about $700, far more than she usually makes in a month, and the reason she did it was simple, she said. “I got seven kids.”
It seems that Gabon’s elephants are getting squeezed in a deadly vise between a seemingly insatiable lust for ivory in Asia, where some people pay as much as $1,000 a pound, and desperate hunters and traffickers in central Africa.
It is a story of temptation — and exploitation — and it shows that the problem is not just about demand, but about supply as well. Poverty, as well as greed, is killing Africa’s elephants.