Magazine article Geographical

Hunting the Hunters: In an Edited Extract from New Book the Modern Explorers, US Conservationist J Michael Fay Joins a Team of Forest Guards as They Head into the Jungles of Gabon on the Trail of a Gang of Elephant Poachers

Magazine article Geographical

Hunting the Hunters: In an Edited Extract from New Book the Modern Explorers, US Conservationist J Michael Fay Joins a Team of Forest Guards as They Head into the Jungles of Gabon on the Trail of a Gang of Elephant Poachers

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

DETECTIVE WORK

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.

HOMING IN

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. …

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