But most of the poachers aren’t coming from Gabon. The dung surveys suggest that they are pouring in from Cameroon to the north. “There are now military posts along the border, but it’s big and poachers eventually find a way to slip through,” says Poulsen. “And though military ecoguards patrol the park, poachers are often more familiar with the forests than the military, who come from the capital city.” Heading to to places where the elephants gather, like fruiting trees, clay licks, and water sources, they gun down the animals with automatic weapons, and slice off their faces with chainsaws.
These deaths are tied to less grisly activities. “The biggest threat to forest elephants is commercial logging,” says Andrea Turkalo from the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It attracts people in search of work which puts even more pressure on the wildlife.” Logging also means roads, and roads provide access to hunters. It’s telling that poaching in Minkebe is lowest in the park’s southern end, where the closest Gabonese road is 50 kilometers away. By contrast, the north-eastern corner, which is 6 km away from a main road in Cameroon, had been nearly emptied of elephants. Again, there’s only so much Gabon can do on its own.
“Although elephants can and do move away from poaching, at some point there is nowhere left to go,” says Fiona Maisels from the Wildlife Conservation Society. “The international nature of both poaching and elephant movements means that trans-border protection and collaboration between states is absolutely key to maintaining elephant populations.”
And ultimately, as long as people are buying ivory, poaching will continue. Ivory prices at nearby trading posts have increased ten-fold since 2005, and the ivory from a single elephant is worth four years’ salary in Cameroon. “Poachers are often just poor villagers, who are armed by cartels with resources,” Poulsen says. “The Gabonese government is working hard on reducing the supply of ivory, but other countries need to work on the demand.” Last December, China—the country where most poached ivory ends up—led the way by vowing to shut down its domestic ivory trade in 2017. “That will go a long way,” says Poulsen.
He argues that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which classifies the planet’s species according to their risk of extinction, needs to consider forest elephants separately from their savannah cousins. Although the two used to be thought of as closely related subspecies, they are clearly distinct. They’re as genetically different from each other as Asian elephants are from extinct mammoths.
To Poulsen, lumping the two species together is a political move. “There are a few southern African countries that have successfully protected the savannah elephant, and want to sell some of the resulting ivory,” he says. That’s possible because the elephants are classified as “vulnerable”—translation: they’re in danger, but not too much danger. But if the two species were separated, the forest elephant would almost certainly move down two ranks to “critically endangered”, and the savannah elephant might be downgraded too. Ivory sales would have to stop.