The British professor fighting to save Africa’s elephants

Published in The Mail on Sunday (March 24th, 2013)

As we set off from our overnight camp in the jungle, the patrol leader turns, gesticulating with  a machete in his hand, to deliver  the safety drill. It is brief and rather rudimentary.

‘If we meet gorillas, come together into a pack so that they think we are bigger than we are,’ he says. ‘If we meet an elephant, run behind a big tree.’

And with those words, we plunge into the dense foliage of one of  the world’s finest remaining forests. Soon my clothes are sodden from pushing aside huge leaves drenched in early morning rain; then I am stewing in sweat as the sun rises and the humidity soars.

We stop at a huge Moabi tree. The ground has recently been trampled and picked clean, for this is the favourite fruit of the forest elephant, which shape and seed these lush avenues. But it is no nature trail. We are more interested in signs of human activity, such as freshly hewn paths, marks cut on trees, grass slashed by machetes and spent bullet shells.

For I am with an anti-poaching  patrol on the front line of the fight to save the forest elephants –  and these virgin rainforests in Gabon are their last major stronghold on Earth.

Like other foot soldiers in this desperate struggle, expedition leader Desiré Ngwa has caught gangs of poachers armed with high-calibre weaponry and stumbled upon clusters of butchered carcasses, the elephants’ faces hacked off for their ivory.

Yet bizarrely, the man leading this increasingly vicious war to save one of the world’s most  magnificent species from extinction is a mild-mannered British zoology professor with pens poking from his shirt pocket.

Lee White is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge he faces. Quite simply, the fate of the forest elephant – a separate species from the savannah elephants found in other African countries, such as Kenya – is in his hands.

‘If we fail, the forest elephant will be ecologically extinct,’ he says. ‘As a species, it will be effectively eliminated.’

These shy creatures are being slaughtered in their thousands by rebel militia groups, corrupt army officers and organised crime syndicates. A landmark report revealed this month that over the past decade, nearly two-thirds have been killed so that their tusks can be turned into trinkets and status symbols.

They are the victims of the soaring price of ivory, which is being fuelled by a booming middle-class in Asia. The field elephant’s rose-tinged tusks are longer, straighter, tougher and more valuable than those found on their larger savannah cousins.

White, who went to school in  Manchester and is a fellow at Stirling University, came to the central African nation of Gabon for his doctorate 25 years ago. Now one of the world’s foremost experts on forest management, he has been asked by Gabon President Ali Bongo to run 13 national parks that he helped create and save the nation’s elephants.

With the president preparing to put 250 armed police at his disposal and the army offering a force of 3,000  soldiers to secure his parks, White admits this might seem strange work for a cerebral wildlife expert.

‘I know I am in a strange position,’ he tells me. ‘But this is no longer a biological issue – it is a security issue.Either people like me can keep  studying these animals until they  disappear or we have to join the fight to protect them.’

Three decades ago, there were a  million forest elephants across a vast chunk of central and west Africa. Today there are fewer than 100,000 – and more than half the surviving herds are in Gabon.

Although the country is about the size of Britain, it has four times more elephants than the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is roughly the size of Western Europe.

The struggle places both the British professor and the former French colony, with its astonishing bio-diversity and scores of unique species of flora and fauna, at the heart of global conservation battles.

Nearly nine-tenths of Gabon is covered by rainforest, which has survived because of the country’s low population density and comparative stability. The forest is spectacular, as I discovered swooping low over 600 miles of the verdant country in an elderly single-engine plane used by a wildlife charity to monitor the animals.

I watched a group of eight elephants picking their way across a clearing – but also caught sight of two carcasses in the president’s own reserve.

They were discovered by Ian Lafferty, my pilot from the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, who believes their deaths were brutal. ‘One must have been shot but only wounded, since it was thrashing around in circles,’ he says. ‘You could see that the poachers cut its leg tendons with a machete to bring it down.’

Such savagery has been focused mainly in Minkebe, a massive park in the north-east corner of the country, which is losing dozens of elephants a day as gangs pour across the porous borders with Cameroon and Congo.

Often the poachers use forest-dwelling pygmies in search of the ‘white gold’ that can fetch £250 per pound in the markets of China. A single tusk can weigh more than three stone – making it highly lucrative. And while a study last month found that 11,000 Minkebe elephants were killed in just eight years, data yet to be published has also revealed another 6,000 slain in adjacent buffer zones and about 8,000 more across the rest of Gabon.
The recent capture of a large gang armed with powerful hunting rifles and in possession of eight tusks led to the arrest of a senior politician masterminding their activities. It revealed how the tentacles of this sordid trade stretch into the highest levels.In another case, a security official was caught with 1,000 lb of ivory. Several recent confrontations have ended in shootouts; one beefy warden told me how he grappled over a gun in hand-to-hand combat with a poacher.White fears the fight may become even more violent as the trade becomes increasingly lucrative and organised crime gangs move in.

‘We are getting better at catching the poachers,’ he says. ‘This is one reason why they have started shooting at us. The hunters know life will become nasty for them if they return without their guns or ivory. They say they will be killed, so they are terrified of the consequences of being caught.’

For the friendly professor, a father of three young children, this is both a personal and professional battle.

A fan of New Romantic music  during his school days in Manchester, his original ambitions to be a fashion journalist were dashed when he was rejected by Vogue. He ended up doing scientific research in Gabon almost by accident – but has since fallen so in love with the country that he has taken dual citizenship.

Behind his thoughtful and scholarly manner lurks a highly adventurous spirit, one that drove him to set up a landmark nature reserve in Nigeria straight after leaving university in London.

His first years in Gabon were spent walking 12 miles a day in jungles to monitor the impact of forestry on wildlife; as a result, he believes he knows them better than anyone. During this time elephants charged him, gorillas roared in his face and a pack of hostile, screeching chimpanzees surrounded him for half an hour, pelting him with fruit and nuts. ‘I took notes,’ he says. ‘Although it was rather scary.’

By 2002 he ran the WCS’s local office and played a key role in persuading Omar Bongo, the dictator who ruled Gabon for 41 years and plundered its oil wealth, to establish national parks covering 11 per cent of the country.

Little was done to protect the parks; they were not even given a state-funded vehicle. But when Ali Bongo Ondimba succeeded his father four years ago, winning a controversial election on a ticket of sustainable development, he asked White to salvage the reserves.

As the nature-loving president began to pour resources into park management, showing his intent by setting fire to confiscated ivory worth £6 million, survey teams slowly uncovered the terrible scale of elephanticide in Minkebe.

‘We knew it was a problem but we had no idea quite how bad it had become,’ says White.

The academic who has become an activist argues he is not just fighting to save the elephant but battling to save his adopted country. ‘Look elsewhere in Africa – in almost every case when the elephants are lost the end result is civil war.’

He believes that poaching becomes endemic; after eliminating all the animals, poachers move on to making money from other forms of gangsterism.

The front line against poaching has now moved to Ivindo, where I joined the morning patrol after hurtling down a huge river on a motorised pirogue – a small, flat-bottomed boat – the night before. The park is known for its mature elephants with huge tusks.

‘We must shore up parks to protect them,’ he says. ‘If we manage to  protect the parks away from our borders we might be able to keep 30,000 to 40,000 of our elephants.’

In January, a Chinese company was caught illegally logging just 700 yards from the park boundary, creating new forest paths that provide access for poachers. Two weeks ago, a gang of gold miners was seized in the park – then three fresh carcasses were found.

Joseph Okouyi, the senior regional warden, says: ‘We can beat the poachers but we have to end the demand in China and we need better logistics with more camps, more planes, more boats.

‘In border parks like Minkebe they are killing elephants with very small tusks because they have killed all the ones with big tusks. Here we have so many with big tusks, which is why we must protect them well.’

Others are more sceptical. ‘This is like a guerrilla war,’ says one wildlife expert involved in similar struggles across Africa. ‘And you can never really win a guerrilla war.’

The fight to stop the ivory trade is frequently compared with the failing war on drugs, but White dismisses such defeatist talk. ‘There is no addiction to ivory,’ he says. ‘You can change cultures – remember that 50 years ago ivory was on sale in Harrods. The challenge is to change Chinese culture.’

He must also change attitudes in Gabon. It is a country still pock-marked by grinding poverty despite great oil wealth, where many people see their elephants as a gift from nature to improve their lives. Only two years ago, ivory was openly on sale in Libreville markets; even now, for all the efforts to stamp out the slaughter, poachers can be jailed for a maximum of only six months, undermining the courageous efforts of those risking their lives on the forest front line.

The fight is made harder by the price of ivory rising tenfold in under ten years and a growing army of Asian workers in Africa, both of which have eased pathways for  this illicit trade. Speculators are rumoured to be buying up stocks as investments for times of scarcity.

Conservationists say the mass killings is the most disastrous since an international ivory ban was imposed in 1989, which saved several population on the brink of extermination.

It is so bad eight countries at the core of the ivory trade surge were threatened this month with trade sanctions if they do not take steps to stop trafficking, including China, Kenya, Malaysia and Uganda.

If habitats are preserved, animal stocks can recover fast. But as  pressure on the planet’s resources grows, the great forests, including those in Gabon, grow ever more threatened by logging and mining.

Even White admits he has no idea if he will win the war to save the forests and creatures of the land he has come to love so much. ‘It could go either way,’ he says. ‘We are fighting for the future of Africa.’

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