Yaounde — In response to the recent large-scale poaching of elephants in and near the Bouba Ndjida National Park, the Cameroon government has announced steps not only to improve security but also to mitigate the effects of climate change on the drought-stricken park, in an effort to prevent elephants moving out of the protected area into the hands of ivory hunters.
About 250 elephants were massacred in January and February this year, according to a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which said that poachers entered the country illegally from neighbouring Sudan and Chad.
"The animals' trunks were cut off and the tusks were removed with machetes," the report said. "This latest massacre is massive and has no comparison to those of preceding years."
The IFAW report said the number of elephants remaining in Cameroon was unclear, but a 2007 estimate put the figure at between 3,000 and 5,000. The North Region of Cameroon, where Bouba Ndjida National Park is located, accounts for 95 percent of the country's population of savannah elephants, according to the Centre for Environment and Rural Transformation (CERUT), a local nongovernmental organisation.
The killing of the elephants is not only a blow to the endangered species, but also a challenge to the government's efforts to encourage visitors to its national parks. Tourism has been growing in Cameroon, with a government target to increase the number of foreign visitors to 500,000 this year, up from the 350,000 who visited in 2006. The sector contributes over more than 4 percent of GDP, according to government figures, and provides over 14,000 jobs.
Cameroon's minister of forestry and wildlife, Philip Ngole Ngwese, told parliamentarians recently that the government had authorised a military offensive against poachers, involving 120 soldiers to supplement forest guards at the park. But he said climate impacts also would need to be addressed to protect the elephants.
"We are aware of the harsh climate in this area characterised by prolonged drought and desertification caused by climate change," said he said.
The minister acknowledged that these conditions probably forced the elephants out of the park in search of water and vegetation, making them vulnerable to poachers.
"That is why we are envisaging some climate adaptation projects as long-term measures to keep the remaining elephants stable within the confines of the park," he said.
The plans include better management of vegetation by planting more trees, as well as water harvesting in some areas to keep the water supply constant and enable vegetation to survive prolonged dry periods.
Charlie Ntonifor, director of projects at CERUT, said that elephants need between 30 and 50 gallons (about 140-230 litres) of water every day, so it is not surprising to find them moving long distances in search of water when there is scarcity.
"Just like their human neighbours, wild animals are facing new challenges for survival because of climate change. So it is obvious that by fighting against desertification and prolonged drought, the rate of migration of these elephants will reduce and consequently their exposure to poachers," said Ntonifor.
Celestine Ngam, a tourism ministry official, said that the high biodiversity of Cameroon's national parks makes them the primary attraction for foreign tourists. Bouba Ndjida National Park's 220,000 hectares (850 square miles) are home to rhinos, buffaloes and lions as well as elephants.
Ngam is concerned that the killing of so many elephants might deter tourists but believes that the security measures will help visitors feel safe as well as protecting the elephants.
However, IFAW has accused the government of acting too late, noting that the recent massacre was not the first time that cross-border poaching has taken place in the region.
Its report said such poaching has become common in recent years due to prolonged dry seasons when the elephants are forced to move long distances in search of scarce sources of fresh water.
Cameroon's government has been pressed to address the problem "but the reaction has been too slow and inadequate," the IFAW charged.
Another non-governmental organisation, Care for the Wild International, criticised the government for failing to strictly apply a 1994 law that prescribes three-year jail sentences and fines of up to 10 million central African francs ($20,000) for those found in possession of parts of dead or live protected animals, including elephants, apes, lions and leopards.
However, on April 3 a court in Yokadouma, in the East Region of Cameroon, fined 17 wildlife traffickers about 77 million francs ($154,000) after they were caught in March with ivory tusks near Boumba Bek and Nki national parks.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.