Elephant Eden becoming paradise lost?

bosolifant CARRemember that scene from Jurassic Park when the two paleontologists see the herds of living dinosaurs for the first time? Their eyes widen in disbelief, mouths agape, unable to speak. Richard Carroll, vice president for Africa at WWF in Washington, describes when he felt that sensation: with the forest elephants in the Central African Republic.

“That’s the reaction I had over 30 years ago when I first stepped out of the dense tropical rain forest of Central African Republic’s Dzanga-Sangha region into a 30-acre clearing with mineral rich soils known as the “Village of the Elephants.” Instantly I was transported into prehistory, with forest elephants of every size, shape and color sucking the mineral salts out of the soil, chasing one another, rolling around in mud-pits and fighting for the best mate or mineral pool. Elsewhere in the clearing, known as the Dzanga Bai, I was awed by bongo, buffalo, sitatunga and hundreds of birds.

This elephant Eden, now a crown jewel in the three-nation Sangha Trinational World Heritage Site, is under attack. Its remote location, combined with effective anti-poaching efforts, have until recently helped it stay out of the severe upswing in poaching across Central Africa. But that isolation is no more: 17 men armed with Kalashnikov rifles recently entered the park and slaughtered at least 26 elephants — four of them calves — collecting as much ivory as possible before disappearing to most likely begin preparing their next attack.

Bosolifant CAR, Dzanga Bai. Bron: WWF CARPOThe U.S. government has achieved much in the past year, including elevating wildlife poaching and trafficking to the highest levels of the State Department. It needs to go further, including a revision of the President’s Transnational Organized Crime Strategy to include wildlife crime as a priority on par with other major crimes such as arms smuggling. In addition, the President should work with Congress to ensure that a poaching crisis response bill is introduced by the end of 2013.

However, the long-term solution lies many thousands of miles away, in China and Thailand. The governments of those two countries must better crack down on the ivory markets that are fueling this deadly illegal trade. Forest elephant populations have plummeted 62 percent over the past 10 years, driven largely by demand from newly rich individuals in China and Thailand. The international community should continue pressuring China and Thailand to live up to their obligations under the CITES Convention on International Wildlife Trade in Endangered Species.

Central African Republic has few tourists, and the vast majority travel to Dzanga Sangha, bringing much needed income and exposure to a country little known to the outside world. They also pay to visit the gorillas, and to walk in the forest with Ba’Aka pygmies collecting medicinal herbs.

I often think of Mekema, my trusted Ba’Aka friend and guide, who helped me survey the plants and animals of this area when I first arrived over 30 years ago. Poaching was out of control and the forests were largely empty of species like elephant. But with the help of Mekema and his people, the government of CAR was able to protect Dzanga Sangha and drive out most of the poachers. All of that work threatens to be undone by one swift spasm of violence.

Sadly, Mekema died a few years ago. But he died knowing he had been a part of something good and wholesome in a troubled part of the world. He had helped refill the forest with the majestic wildlife of his youth. I hope for his sake and in his honor that we can once again return the Dzanga Bai to its former state of grace.”

Richard Carroll is vice president for Africa at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C. He contributed this article to LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights on LiveScience.com. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.

Photo 1: credits Carlos Drew/WWF

Photo 2: credits WWF CARPO

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