BENIN: Pendjari Park dreams of being a sanctuary for elephants in West Africa

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Sitting in the back of a pick-up truck in Pendjari National Park, in northern Benin, Matthieu Yoa smiles with the satisfaction of the work done: with his fellow rangers, he has just put a satellite collar on an elephant for ensure its protection.

“It was very strong,” he breathes in hesitant French, visibly moved.

Although his native village is located only a few kilometers from this huge 4,700 km2 national park, this 23-year-old had never seen wild animals until two months ago. “Except in documentaries. ”

He was working as a mason when he read in the local paper that African Parks, an NGO dedicated to the protection of nature and who recently managed the Pendjari Park, recruited about sixty guards. Out of 1,700 candidates, he is one of 35 students selected for the first class.

After six weeks of training, he knows how to put an elephant on the ground for a quarter of an hour to put a necklace and give the species a chance to survive in West Africa.

This extremely delicate operation is supervised by a South African veterinarian, Pete Morkel, who came specifically to Benin to equip a dozen elephants and lions with collars.

Tracked for nearly an hour by a ULM plane, then by two pickups, the beast collapsed in tall grass after being hit by a numbing arrow shot. Awake a few minutes later, she immediately joined her flock, a little groggy, with her new collar.

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– Ivory to Asia –

“We need to know their movements to make them safer,” said Pete Morkel, a face hardened by years of bush. “West African elephants are quite aggressive by nature because they have been hunted in this area for centuries. ”

Another specificity of the West African elephant, its defenses are very small. “All the individuals with great defenses have been slaughtered, and over time, this has changed their genetics,” says the veterinarian.

Portuguese traders, who arrived in the kingdom of Dahomey as early as the 15th century, already exported ivory in large quantities, and trade reached its peak during French colonization.

After a brief lull in the 1990s, due to international excitement and declining interest from European customers, traffic resumed a decade ago with the expansion of the Asian market.

China has totally banned the ivory trade on January 1, but that does not yet prevent trafficking from continuing. At the end of January, a ton of ivory was seized in Côte d’Ivoire and six people were arrested. In early December, nearly a ton of elephant tusks, also exported from the port of Abidjan, were discovered in Cambodia, calling for China.

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– Doubling the number of elephants in 10 years –

“The population of pachyderms is small in West Africa, and mainly concentrated in the Pendjari and the cross-border WAP -parc that covers the Pendjari as well as protected areas in Burkina Faso and Niger – where it does not exceed not the 6,000 individuals, “says Jean-Marc Froment, in charge of conservation at African Parks.

The international NGO, chosen by the Beninese government in 2017 to manage this space, aims to double in 10 years the local animal population and reintroduce elephants in other West African parks.

But to do this, we must first review the security of the park, gangrenous networks of traffickers, whose smaller hands are often employees within the park.

In the “control room”, a newly built small office, Markéta Antoninova, project manager for African Parks, looks at the bright lines drawn on a computer screen.

“Thanks to GPS trackers, we observe the movements of deployed ranger teams,” she says. “They go on seven-day journeys on foot, about fifty kilometers through the park, but they are given their destination day by day. ”

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– Copy lessons –

A measure designed to prevent any connivance with poachers: previously, when the corrupt guards knew in advance the entire itinerary of their mission, “it was enough for them to call poachers to tell them where they would be during the week,” explains the young woman of Czech origin, who spent many years in Chad and Sudan.

In the new training center rangers, thirty young men of the second promotion climb and down a stony hill under a blazing sun. Under a large straw canopy transformed into a classroom, others follow the theoretical classes.

In small notebooks with the image of Cristiano Ronaldo, the students copy their lessons with application: “What is a bribe? What is abuse of power? “, ” What is biodiversity? “.

“The fight against poaching can not be done only with weapons and sanctions,” says Jean-Marc Froment.

The monthly salaries of the rangers, 150,000 CFA francs (about 300 euros), are important in this poor region of Benin.

“But above all, we have to transmit our passion, to make understand the interest of preserving nature,” concludes Mr. Froment. “And that can only be done with time.”

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