In Ivory Coast, a difficult battle is on to save one of the last patches of virgin habitat left on the West African Coast. VOA's Luis Ramirez traveled recently into a national park that has been off limits to government officials, conservation groups and visitors for several months.
Since March, impoverished villagers in areas surrounding the Abou Kouamekro National Park have kept outsiders, including government officials, from entering the forest, which is home to several species of African wildlife, including water buffalo, elephants, and rhinoceros.
Armed with machetes and stones, villagers in March chased out the park's 15 rangers and burned down their cabins and offices.
The attack was the result of anger that had been building for years. Area residents complain that, since the area was designated a national park in 1993, they have been brought to the verge of starvation.
"Since the park was created, we have not seen any benefits," says Kouassi Edouard Yao, one of the villages whose traditional farmlands were turned into part of the national park nine years ago. "We are suffering because there is not enough to eat. We are forced to go in there to look for food. This forest that sits next to us, this is where we get our food. The animals, especially the elephants and the buffalo, come here to eat our crops. We cannot live with the animals."
For Kouassi Edouard Yao, the government mismanaged the park. "We cannot live with the animals running loose in the forest," he says. "They must find a place for them, so that we have fields in which we can grow our food. We have often found buffalos here, trampling through our crops. That happened because the rangers were not keeping an eye on the animals and making sure they stayed in their forest."
On a nearby highway, a reporter found 27-year-old Kouakoue Yao selling a monkey that he just shot dead on the edge of the forest. Holding the dead animal by the tail, he said he would fetch the equivalent of about $10 dollars, more than he makes in a week growing and selling yams."
"I am selling this monkey," he says. "I found it in the forest. I have caught it and others eating my crops. That is why I shoot them. Previously, it was not like this. Our fathers farmed that land. But we can no longer go in there to farm. So, it's become like a sacred forest that we cannot go into."
Conservation officials also fear there may be a rise in poaching.
The World Wildlife Fund's Tiekoura Kone says Ivory Coast's government, like others in West Africa, has displayed good intentions in setting up a large number of preserves. But, he adds, little concrete action has been taken beyond designating the parks.
"Once the preserve is designated, it must be managed," he explains. "The animals must be well-protected. But also, it must be assured that there are provisions for alternative economic activities, such as eco-tourism, that are compatible with nature conservation."
Government officials acknowledge that something should have been done at Abou Kouamekro to ensure the villagers had alternative means to earn a living. Mr. Kone says that, for now, one can expect the poaching to continue.
"It is a question of virtue versus necessity," he stresses. "Hunting makes them good money. They hunt, above all, for bush meat to sell to restaurants in the cities. That is an extremely lucrative market. Clearly, each time a hunter has an order for ivory, or rhinoceros horn, he will see to it that he gets it. If there is no one watching the park, he will do it. If there is a good market for it, why would he not do it? One must see, at the same time, that after a few years, there will be no elephants or other spectacular animals for tourists to see."
Ivory Coast, unlike some nations of east and southern Africa, does not draw large numbers of safari-goers from Europe, Japan, and the United States. Since it gained its independence from France, the country has focused on developing its main exports, cocoa and coffee - a pattern it has followed since colonial days.
It is only now that Ivory Coast's government, in partnership with the World Bank and groups like Conservation International, is starting to talk about developing an eco-tourism industry.
Officials say they are in the process of carrying out an ambitious 15-year plan that they hope will allow them to increase surveillance, improve the training of rangers, and build more lodges and other facilities.
But the plan is in its infant stage, and officials with the Ivory Coast Office of National Park Protection say they realize that, with no facilities currently in place, they have a long way to go before the plan becomes a reality. So far, they have gotten only a small percentage of the funding they need to carry out the project. Some conservationists worry that, by the time the project is fully implemented, more cases like the attacks at Abou Kouamekro will occur, and more wild animals will be killed off.