By Richard Conniff
In the forest clearing locals call the “Village of Elephants,” or Dzanga Bai, 17 heavily armed men arrived on Wednesday, May 8, with AK-47s. They were bound for the observation tower where tourists in the Central African Republic have often come to admire the forest elephants, and where researchers have worked to decipher the language of elephants for more than 20 years.
It was over in a few horrific minutes.
When guards who had previously been disarmed by rebel forces went back yesterday, May 9, they counted the butchered carcasses of 26 elephants killed for their ivory, including four babies.
The killing happened in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area, in the southwest corner of the country, on the border with Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Dzanga Bai itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2010, the CBS show 60 Minutes described it as “one of the most magical places on Earth.”
At least for the moment, Seleka rebel forces have ordered the poachers out of the area, according to Anna Feistner of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who worked there until a few weeks ago. The rebels now control the government in the Central African Republic (or CAR). But they do not necessarily control their own forces in the field, she said. “Many of them come in from other countries and do not recognize the hierarchy or the government.”
A consortium of concerned groups, including UNESCO, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), together with various national governments, is now pressuring the government in Banqui, the capital, to send a military force to the Dzanga-Sangha area and bring rebel gangs under control. But no one knows if the poachers at Dzanga Bai were themselves part of a rebel group, said Feistner, or if they belong to the Sudanese poaching gangs that have worked in the area in recent years. She plans to head back to the Cameroon border on May 14 to keep up political pressure to protect the elephants. More....