Midnight, 30 June 2011, Makoukou, northern Gabon, Central Africa. We gently push the dugout canoe into the glassy black waters, which reflect the lights of Makoukou like a pane of glass. Mosquitoes swarm around my head; I sit on a pile of baggage.
Guards from the Minkebe National Park mostly sit on sticks balanced on the thin edges of this hollowed-out log. With ten people on board, and supplies for two weeks, we only have a couple of inches of wood between us and water.
The captain, Moses, a local river rat, guns the 40-horsepower Yamaha, and soon we’re beyond the glint of town, bombing forwards into darkness. I can just make out the outline of the tall forest on the banks, plenty to give Moses his landmarks; he knows every log and rock in the Ivindo River.
Cramped and chilled, I felt the engine whine pound my eardrums. ‘This is nuts,’ I thought. ‘An elephant poacher we have in custody, who won’t talk, keeps telling us he’s a gold prospector. We suspect his gun and his shooters are still in the woods, and we need the gun and witnesses to convict him. We have one of his men, Waka, in the boat with us, hoping he’ll talk once we get him alone. So now here we are in the pitch dark, travelling at high speed on this huge river, sitting in a log, looking for people who might not even exist.’ The park warden figured they would slip in under the cover of night; the more chilled I got, the more sceptical I became.
As elsewhere in Africa, elephant poaching was out of control in Minkebe National Park, the largest and most pristine of the parks that President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba had created in Gabon in 2002. It had become a killing field. I was now back in Gabon helping to get management going in the parks – and stopping elephant slaughter was a top priority.
The poaching was mixed with a gold rush, also fuelled by the resource free-for-all resulting from global demand, particularly from Asia. A gold camp I had left in 2004 containing 200 people had now exploded into a town of more than 3,000, mostly Cameroonians and West Africans, many of whom were brought there with debts to be paid off with work.
Even here at the terminus of the frontier, in the middle of this last, huge, virgin block of forest, with the elephanticide, the gold rush and the logging of the forest happening at lightning pace, it’s a colossal challenge keeping humanity at bay and protecting what nature is left.
A light signalled ahead of us, sending flashes over the water. Boatmen do this when they hear another boat bearing down on them in order to avoid getting chopped in half.
The flashing continued and we pulled alongside. Six men were crouched in a tiny dugout, quiet. The guards scanned the passengers, asked two or three questions in Kwele, the local lingo, and said, ‘That is our man.’ A miracle – this was the boat driver for the poacher.
We invited him into our canoe, said goodbye to the others, and motored off. The guards told him that his boss had confessed and that if he didn’t cooperate, he was toast. We wanted to know where the gun was – and the shooter, who we didn’t even know existed for certain.
After several tries, the boat driver told the guards he’d left the shooter in a village upstream. We pulled up to the village port, a muddy slough and, guided by the driver, walked quietly to the house where he said the shooter was sleeping.
Jean, one of the guards, rapped on the door. The rest surrounded the cabin to make sure no-one escaped. Silence. He must have given us the slip, or the driver was lying.
Jean signalled to us to pretend to walk away and then go still. A minute later, there were whispers from inside the mud hut and the gendarmes stormed the place. The shooter was caught – a wiry Baka wearing a FIFA World Cup shirt.
The village chief and 200 other people now poured out of their huts and the place went into a frenzy. The chief came over, denied all knowledge of the poacher’s activity and scolded the apprehended man for bringing this problem to the village (although nine times out of ten, he’s in on the deal as well).
The shooter was handcuffed to a post in a house with two guards, otherwise he’d just bolt into the forest. The park warden was called via satellite phone and he decided to send several of the guards and the boat driver we’d arrested earlier back to town to lighten our load and just take the other two men, both Baka, with us and a few guards. At 2.30am, the show was over and we all hit the sack.
Next morning, the village was calm. Jules, the shooter, ate bread and sardines for breakfast, a king’s feast for him.
Soon we were heading up the Oua River, into the unknown. Jules was still quiet, but now uncuffed. Waka was talking to him in French, telling him to collaborate. Jules responded in Baka. Then we got our first breakthrough: Jules told Waka where the boat was stashed.
We made our way up the backwater and sure enough, there was the boat, its motor hidden away. Continuing up the Oua, which I had passed on my MegaTransect (a 3,200-kilometre trek across the Congo Basin) in 2000, the guards kept pointing out clearings on the river bank that had once teemed with elephants and buffalo but were now abandoned.
We came to a fishermen’s camp. The guards knew these guys, but both sides were subdued and suspicious – nobody is innocent in places such as this. We ambled around looking for telltale signs of elephant poaching, but all we found were tiny fish smoking on racks. The guards bought some and we continued.
The river was getting smaller, with snags every 100 feet. The boat drivers have a system – gun the motor before you hit a log and lift the foot of the outboard just as you pass over it at 15 knots. It works – most of the time.
We came to an abandoned guard camp. Only women present; they denied that there were any guns in the camp and said the men were back in town selling fish. A quick search netted several 12 gauge shells, one an elephant slug. The contents of the hut were burned and we kept the shells for evidence. The women were told to vacate the camp immediately.
These people do everything – fish, hunt pigs, duikers and elephants, and prospect for gold at the same time. They are frontier people, struggling simply to survive. This is the frontline.
JUST TOO LATE
Late in the evening, we came to an old camp in a spot that was once an enormous elephant clearing, full of animals; now it was covered in tall grass with just a few lily trotters for wildlife. We built a fire, made smoked fish stew, and started working on Jules.
The guards told him that his boss had put all of the blame on him and that he would go to jail in Libreville if he didn’t take us to the gun, all the while giving him cigarettes, food and a tent to sleep in. He said there was no gun; still no smile, but looks of fear with that image of a cell in a faraway city with no family to bring him food.
Waka must have given Jules elderly advice in the night because next morning he was ready to take us to where he’d hidden the gun. We ate breakfast and Jules cracked a half smile. He was starting to be our friend.
Off we went on another eight hours of log hopping. At one point, our driver dived into the water; before I could wonder why, I got zapped in the head by a hornet, then another, then ten. Soon everyone was in the water. We passed an enormous python, the biggest I’ve ever seen, coiled up on a snag in the river like a pile of truck tyres.
Finally, Jules signalled for us to stop – four hours’ walk to the west was where he had hidden the gun. The Malaysian loggers had just bulldozed
a road in there. He said that was where lots of elephant poaching was going on right now, because of access and the abundance of nature – but not for long.
Next morning, we followed Jules through swamps and dense underbrush. He just slipped through the forest without making a sound. The filaria flies were biting my ankles, leaving itchy welts, but I was right behind the others. After four hours of pounding, I could sense a change: rays of light in the understorey, denser growth: ‘A road,’ I thought.
Sure enough, not far ahead was the chasm the Malaysians had just bladed into the forest. D8 Caterpillars are amazing machines and this is the first time one had ever been here. These guys were unbelievably deep, ripping through tens of thousands of acres of primary forest a year, taking every big tree, causing a wave of poaching.
We cruised along the road to its end, walked a now abandoned elephant trail, and from under a log, Jules pulled out a bit of plastic. Inside was a Slovenian .458 elephant rifle and 38 giant bullets. All I could see was 38 more dead elephants.
We filmed his confession. He recounted all of the elephants he had killed in the past year for our apprehended poacher, but much more scary was his description of bands of 40-plus Cameroonian hunters he had seen who’d come all the way from the Minkebe gold camp for elephants.
He said they were emptying the forest – a complete slaughter, hundreds of elephants being killed, and this was from a man who knew. We knew it too, but his descriptions made the blood rush to my head. I was sick, wondering how could we stop this – more than 3,000 people in Minkebe and growing, the price of gold climbing, global demand out of control.
Back in Makoukou, I alerted the head of parks, who informed the president, Ali Bongo Ondimba. The Minkebe gold camp was an urgent matter of national security. Not only were they slaughtering their way through the last major stronghold of forest elephants on Earth, but West African and Cameroonian poachers and criminals were infiltrating the entire country, smuggling kilograms of gold and ivory north and guns, ammunition and women for hire south.
Two days later, a general landed in Makoukou with 100 troops, a Puma helicopter and all they needed for a long stint in the forest. They were heading for Minkebe gold camp to give the miners 72 hours to leave.
I went to the gold camp three days later. Among the shanty town of wooden shacks and the enormous gold pit there were just a few straggling miners, goats, chickens and soldiers milling around. The general said everyone left in a calm, orderly way. For many, it was probably good fortune; a lot of the men digging in these gold camps are highly indebted to the people who brought them there.
Where hundreds of generators and pumps and boom boxes had drowned out the cacophony of the jungle days before, I could now hear the calls of blue touracos and hornbills. Peace had come to this place, and not a single shot had been fired. The 3,000 miners had walked peacefully more than 100 kilometres back on the same trail they had come in on. In the days that followed, most of the satellite gold camps scattered in the forest were also evacuated and the elephants of Minkebe were given a reprieve.
People have no idea of the resource plunder that is ploughing its way into every last frontier on this planet, bringing the consumptive force of seven billion humans with it. Only huge, historic, difficult decisions by everyone to protect those resources that still remain will put a stop to global collapse. I live it every day. World leaders dream of saving the planet by trading an invisible gas we call CO2, and they are even failing at that. We need to get real.