LOPE, GABON - Central Africa is fighting for the survival of the African forest elephant, with more than 70% of the population wiped out in the last 15 years.
Gabon, home to more than half of Africa's forest elephants, recently has seen a surge in poachers. Countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have lost virtually all of their elephant populations, according to Lee White, Gabon minister for forests, sea, environment and climate.
"Between Gabon and northern Congo, we're the only places that are really hanging on," White told VOA.
Park rangers, called eco-guards, face organized, fierce enemies who have been traced back to Boko Haram, according to White.
"What's at stake is the future of Gabon," White said. "If we don't beat the poachers, Gabon will go the way of CAR [Central African Republic]. We will lose our country."
Elephant poachers have spilled across Gabon's borders to supply the illegal ivory trade, where elephant tusks can sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars per kilo.
Gabon has invested millions of dollars to fight the poachers and protect its unique wildlife. Its national park budget has exploded from $500,000 in 2007 to $25 million in 2019. The number of park rangers has grown from about 100 to 850.
Despite the increased investment, the country is losing about two tons of ivory, or about 150 elephants, each month to poachers.
"I'm proud that we've made the progress that we've made, but it's still catastrophic. So, we still have to do more," White told VOA.
The more Gabon has resisted the poachers, the more dangerous the fight has become for the eco-guards. Officials say gunfights are a "commonplace" occurrence for rangers.
Minkebe National Park, located on the northwestern border with Cameroon and Congo, is considered the most dangerous. Narcisse Baba Obame, a patrol chief for the park's eco-guards, has survived five gunfights since becoming a park ranger.
"You never know whether you will get out alive," he said.
Hubert Ella Ekogha, technical director of Gabon's national parks, recently survived an assassination attempt during a patrol. Poachers immediately opened fire on him when he entered the camp. His team killed two Congolese poachers during the gunfight.
"You know, it's a war," Ekogha said. "I'm talking about bands of 20 to 50 people in the forest with AK-47, .45 rifle, .375 rifle. So, it's complicated."
U.S. military joins fight
Gabon isn't alone against the poachers.
The U.S. government is the national parks' biggest international donor, providing $7 million a year to protect Gabon's wildlife. And now the U.S military has joined the fight.
Beginning last year, a small U.S. Army team from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has been training Gabonese eco-guards on how to improve techniques used to capture poachers and preserve evidence. The team also taught planning skills, land navigation and how to protect human rights.
U.S. military officials say counterpoaching training operations began in Tanzania in 2009. Other U.S. military counterpoaching efforts have occurred in Zambia, Malawi, Chad, Botswana and Uganda.
"We not only help them preserve the wildlife, at the same time, we're disrupting criminal organizations, and we're helping them develop a better future," Air Force Colonel Chris Karns, director of public affairs for U.S. Africa Command, told VOA.
In Gabon, the Army team first developed a list of tasks deemed "essential" to the eco-guards' counterpoaching and countertrafficking patrols, according to team leader Captain Kevin Chapla.
The result was a core instructor group that is currently teaching skills throughout the entire ranks of Gabon's eco-guard force.
"It is the first training sustainment capability that the ANPN [Gabon's National Parks Agency] has ever had, so it's pretty big," Chapla said.
One thing not included in this mission is weapons training, because the government didn't allow eco-guards to carry weapons until this year.
However, the eco-guards' training with the Army team said they would desperately want weapons training in the future.
"You can't say to a poacher, 'Oh, sorry, guys. Stay quiet and give me your gun,' " Ekogha said. "Months ago, we were not allowed to carry weapons. Now, we have weapons and the poaching is decreasing."