African Leaders: No One Country Can Stop Elephant Poaching

Aug 5, 2014
Originally published on August 5, 2014 3:08 pm

The killing, by poisoned arrow, of a 45-year-old elephant named Satao this June hit Kenya particularly hard. Not just because Satao had lived so long, with tusks so grand they brushed the grass where he walked.

But also because Satao was under almost 24-hour watch by Kenyan game rangers to protect him from poachers. However, the game rangers were unable to follow Satao when he roamed into an area of dense brush at the boundary of the park, an area where poachers are known to hide.

Africa is losing the war against poaching. One reason, say American officials, is the lack of cooperation across the continent. Neighboring countries often don't share strategies and intelligence, even though roaming elephants ignore national borders.

As part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week in Washington, several presidents gathered on Capitol Hill on Monday for a panel discussion on what needs to be done.

Tanzania's president, Jakaya Kikwete, described the considerable efforts his country was taking to provide extra training and resources to game rangers, but said he was hampered by lax security elsewhere in East Africa.

"The elephants are killed in Tanzania," said Kikwete, "but the consignment [of ivory] came from Kampala, Uganda. And moved through Mombasa," the main port of Kenya. "So there is definitely need for working together."

Kikwete, one of more than 40 leaders in Washington this week, was joined on the panel by the presidents of Gabon, Togo and Namibia to share stories with an audience of American and African officials.

When the four presidents were asked what they need from the United States, the answers revealed how militarily sophisticated the poachers have become. Namibia asked for light attack helicopters. Tanzania for night-vision goggles. Togo for infrared scanners to use at its port.

President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon paused before making his appeal. Gabon is 80 percent covered with rain forest and has well over half of the world's forest elephants, a dwindling species of small brown elephant particularly prized by poachers for its straight, dense tusks that are a delicately pinkish color.

Forest elephants are being killed at a rate of 9 percent of the population per year in a war that has become so high-tech that the U.S. Marines were called in to conduct training for Gabonese park rangers.

Ondimba first mourned the deaths of many game rangers killed in this escalating poaching war. Then, he asked the U.S. not just for more military equipment, but for diplomatic pressure on a country that was not present at this panel: China.

"Let's kill the market," the president said, referring to China, the leading destination of the ivory. "Then we will save the animals, and we will save the human being."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Now African leaders are gathering in Washington this week, hoping to project a different image of their continent. They want to promote African nations as more than places to grab natural resources and go. Most countries are exploited for everything from oil to copper to ivory. And it's the elephant tusks we talk about next. Rates of poaching are higher than at any time in the last two decades. But in Washington, four African presidents have told Congress they're fighting back. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: For some, it might've been a bit weird to see the president of Togo on this panel for a success in fighting wildlife trafficking. Even the President Faure Gnassingbe acted surprised. And that's because Togo, which is one of those long and thin countries on the curvy part of West Africa, doesn't have elephants - or hardly any. And yet the president says illicit ivory, confiscated all the way over in Malaysia and Hong Kong, was traced to his country.


PRESIDENT FAURE GNASSINGBE: I say we have to investigate because it's a matter of embarrassment, and we don't want to be pictured as a country which kills elephants that it doesn't have. And...


GNASSINGBE: ...A few months later...

WARNER: A few months later, after Togo cracked down, arrested and interrogated some of the traffickers, it discovered the source.


GNASSINGBE: Many of those tusks that were seized in Togo came from...

WARNER: And at this point, the president of Togo turns apologetically to the panelist on his left, the panelist who happens to be the president of Gabon, the country further south on the Gulf of Guinea.


GNASSINGBE: ...My friend's country. I was very surprised because I think in June we were together. We spent the day together, but we didn't even mention that issue.

WARNER: So those tusks shipped out of Togo came from elephants in the rain forests of Gabon - forest elephants, which are a dwindling species particularly prized by poachers for their dense and darkly pinkish tusks. The president of Gabon was on this panel for his efforts to save those forest elephants. U.S. Marines even came in to train its park rangers. But the president of Togo was saying that until U.S. diplomats brought it up, Gabon had never actually raised the poaching issue at regional talks. One of the biggest criticisms of Africa's failure to stop poaching is that there's no continental strategy, no dialogue between countries. And so this panel on wildlife trafficking was timed with the Africa Leaders Summit that has brought more than three dozen presidents to Washington. A third panelist, President Kikwete of Tanzania, complained that a shipment of Ivory might be trafficed through five countries, three of them in Africa.


PRESIDENT JAKAYA KIKWETE: The elephants are killed in Tanzania, move northwards.

WARNER: To Kenya.


KIKWETE: And then moved eastwards.

WARNER: To Uganda, before being shipped off to Sri Lanka to sell to the largest market, which is China. Now in the second half of the panel discussion, the four presidents were fairly bluntly asked what they'd need from the United States to continue their efforts. And the answers revealed just how well armed the poachers have become. Namibia asked for light attack helicopters, Tanzania for night-vision goggles, Togo for infrared scanners to use at its port. But President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, the country with all the rain forest, began talking about the thousands of game rangers killed in the front lines of this ever escalating poaching war. And then he asked the U.S. not just for military equipment, but for diplomatic pressure on one country that was not present at this panel - China.


PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: Let's kill the market, and we'll save the animals. We'll save also human beings.

WARNER: Gregory Warner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.