The Dzanga-Sangha Complex of Protected Areas is a protected area of rainforest in the south-west of the Central African Republic. It covers a total area of more than 400,000 hectares.
It is home to western lowland gorillas, forest elephants, bongo antelopes, forest buffalos and many bird species. More than 4,000 elephants have been counted and identified at the Dzanga bai – a forest clearing with soil rich in mineral salts.
Every day, dozens of elephants gather to drink the mineral salts. Dzanga bai is in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, one of the protected areas within the Dzanga-Sangha Complex.
Civil war and poaching
Since 2012, the Central African Republic has faced an ongoing civil war. The muslim Seleka militia overthrew CAR’s president in March 2013, causing chaos and sparking Muslim-Christian conflict. Up to one million people have been displaced by the violence.
Seleka moved towards Bayanga, a town bordering Dzanga-Sangha, and occupied the town in April 2013.
In May 2013, 17 poachers armed with rocket launchers and AK-47s arrived in Dzanga-Ndoki from Sudan, taking advantage of the chaos. The eco-guards in Dzanga-Ndoki fled into the forest.
The poachers killed 26 elephants, loaded the tusks onto pickup trucks and left.
WWF works in Dzanga-Sangha, aiming, “to protect the forest ecosystem and to promote sustainable development in the region”. While the Seleka militias were in Bayanga, the WWF office was attacked, and at one point Jean-Bernard Yarissem, the WWF programme coordinator, had to hide in the forest for a day, without food or water.
In January 2014, under regional and international pressure, the Seleka stood aside. They were replaced in Bayanga by Christian vigilantes, who looted market stalls and chased out any Muslim merchants. In May 2014, the CAR army finally drove them out of Bayanga.
In July 2014, the Dzanga-Sangha reopened for tourists.
WWF and WCS hire a private environmental security firm
Andrea Turkalo is a wildlife biologist working with the Wildlife Conservation Society. She was married to Mike Fay, explorer and conservationist, who also works with WCS. Now in her 60s, she’s been studying the elephants at Dzanga Baï for more than 20 years.
WWF funded her to set up a camp in the forest about 1.6 kilometres from Dzanga Baï. She left her camp just days before the poachers massacred the elephants.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, a former-Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) commando called Nir Kalron saw the news of the elephant slaughter on the BBC. Kalron is the founder of a company called Maisha Consulting, that specialises in anti-poaching, anti-trafficking, and investigation operations in Africa. The company’s website explains that,
Maisha is involved in the forefront of conservation in Africa. Focusing our resources on the research and creation of security concepts for the growing phenomenon of environmental crime.
About two weeks after the poachers attacked the elephants at Dzanga bai, Kalron arrived with a team of ex-Israeli soldiers. They collected shell casings from Dzanga bai and worked together with Conflict Armament and C4ADS to trace where the shells came from.
They traced some of the shells to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard factory in Tehran. Sudan was at the time an Iranian ally. The shells matched casings that Maisha Consulting had found five years earlier in Cameroon at a much worse elephant slaughter in Bouba-Njida National Park. Over three months, from November 2011, poachers killed 650 elephants in Bouba-Njida.
Maisha Consulting was subsequently hired by the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF to protect Dzanga bai and investigate the poachers. Maisha discovered that one of the poachers was a general in the Sudanese Janjaweed militia.
In an interview with NPR, Turkalo said,
“I think, in a lot of areas, we are going to have to have people with [Kalron’s] skills dealing with these situations. They go in and deal with rebels and warlords.”
She also said that Kalron told her, “You know, you don’t have to kill poachers.”
In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Kalron explained what his company does:
We don’t operate a private army nor do we infringe on any country’s sovereignty. We work with partners, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in various hot spots and connect with the local authorities to conduct specialized training sessions, share intelligence, and cooperate on operations.
Here’s Maisha’s explanation of their work at Dzanga bai, from the company’s website:
But poaching isn’t the only threat to Dzanga bai and its wildlife. In 2015, CAR’s Forest Ministry handed out two logging concessions in buffer zones near protected areas in the Dzanga-Sangha Complex.
One of the logging concessions, is held by Sinfocam, a subsidiary of Vicwood, a Hong Kong based logging company. The concession is only ten kilometres from Dzanga bai.
Filip Verbelen, a forest researcher for Greenpeace, pointed out to The New Yorker that conducting industrial logging operations close to crucially important conservation areas like Dzanga bai is rife with problems. Logging results in an influx of workers and cash, which are intrinsically linked to poaching.
Vicwood has a total of more than one million hectares of logging concessions in CAR. Global Witness describes timber from CAR as “Blood Timber”. In a 2015 report about the industry in CAR, Global Witness wrote about the allocation of a series of new concessions in the country, including to Sinfocam:
Strong suspicions of corruption hang over the whole process. At least one company which submitted a bid was approached by government agents, promising support in exchange for bribes. Several sources claim high level officials had intervened to push for the allocation of the permits; the President of the National Transitional Council, Alexandre Ferdinand N’Guendet, openly lobbied, on behalf of Vicwood, for the permit to be allocated to Sinfocam. Indeed, Vicwood’s director came from Hong Kong to meet CAR authorities; the company paid CFA 4,450 million (EUR 686,000) to be granted the permit… This sum corresponds to three years of rent for the concession. The authorities did not consider Vicwood’s tax arrears of CFA 469,655,726 (EUR 715,984) as an obstacle to it gaining a new permit.