Forest elephants are smaller than their cousins on the African savannah, but in Gabon their destructive raids of farmers’ fields are having an outsized impact on support for the government and its conservation agenda.
With over 10% of its land protected in national parks, Gabon has become the main stronghold in central Africa for critically endangered forest elephants, whose relative abundance and marauding habits are undermining efforts to protect them there, authorities and scientists warn.
The long-standing conflict has become markedly more acute in the past few years – 2021 saw the most widespread anti-elephant protests so far by farmers across Gabon, according to the environment ministry.
“Some people cannot farm anymore – the elephants are eating so much of their crops,” Environment Minister Lee White told Reuters. “It has become a political issue and is eroding support for conservation and for the president (and) government.”
Just outside the capital Libreville, splintered tree-trunks, trampled undergrowth and churned-up earth mark where an elephant strolled through the forest.
When they draw close to villages, these natural bulldozers can wipe out carefully tended crops in just a few hours.
“You can see how people get mad and sometimes kill the elephants,” said guide Djakel Matotsi as he followed the elephant tracks in Pongara National Park.
Up to 50 elephants are killed per year in revenge or self-defense, while around 10 people have been killed by elephants in the past 2-1/2 years, according to the environment ministry, which says there is not enough data to quantify long-term trends.
The raids are causing food prices to rise, spurring rural exodus and driving up perceptions that the authorities prioritize elephants’ interests while doing little to support the around third of Gabonese who live in poverty, said Oliwina Boudes, head of a female farmers’ association.
“All rural communities harbor this feeling,” she told Reuters.
Need for detente
The need for a detente is clear. Gabon is home to 95,000 or 60-70% of all African forest elephants, which are facing dramatic decline elsewhere, a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation in December showed. Managing these herds while promoting rural development in Gabon is of “critical importance to the species’ persistence,” it said.
After nationwide consultations in 2021, authorities are rolling out new initiatives this year to try to strike this balance.
To address the lack of data on elephant disturbances, the ministry has launched a database and app to track and verify complaints while for the first time, the government has set aside $4.5 million in this year’s budget to compensate farmers for trashed crops.
The government is also allowing charity Space for Giants (SfG) to trial elephant-repelling electric fences around fields, customized to simplify their installation and maintenance in tropical forest conditions.
The 57 single-strand fences set up so far have repelled all interactions with elephants, SfG said in June. It plans to install 500 by year-end if it can get the funding.
Even with the fences, the government will need to do more to help farmers cope with elephants as it pursues its ‘Green Gabon’ plan for sustainable development, said John Poulsen, elephant ecologist at Duke University, who is helping SfG assess the impact of the fence trial.
He said that the government could potentially deploy agents in the field to help keep troublesome elephants away from villages and provide training so communities can deal with problem animals better themselves.
“If they have that perception that elephants are that bad … it absolutely affects their outlook and willingness to work with the government and with other conservation efforts,” he said.