Pride and concern for Burkina Faso's elephants

When Frank Alain Kabore—the manager of a wildlife concession in Burkina Faso—looks back, he recalls that days used to go by without him seeing an elephant in the reserve, a decade ago. Today, he comes across one every 100m.

“When I call the team at my encampment in Arly [about 400km east of the capital, Ouagadougou], I can hear elephants rummaging through the garbage cans or pulling down wires,” Kabore says.

“There used to be a lot of poaching of elephants ... Today, if you travel my ranch’s 90km of trails, you can see at least 10 herds of them.”

Kabore’s experience is a microcosm of an environmental success story in this West African country that may yet return to haunt it.

Towards the end of the 1980s, poachers were causing Burkina Faso’s elephants to disappear at an alarming rate.
This prompted the government to declare elephants an endangered species, and outlaw hunting of them.

The government also joined Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (Mike), a programme run by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). Mike was initiated in 1997 to help states with elephant populations keep track of changing trends in illegal elephant hunting, among other things.

In addition, authorities decided to make hunting areas into concessions, in an effort to include the private sector in wildlife preservation and development.

“We succeeded in creating suitable conditions for elephants to reproduce, to return and to settle in,” says Lassane Sawadogo, director of Wildlife and Hunting at the Ministry of the Environment. “Elephant breeding skyrocketed.”

When the government sounded the alarm about poaching at the end of the 1980s, official estimates put the number elephants living in Burkina Faso at 350.

But, a recent study conducted by the government with the support of Mike showed that there are now more than 4 500 elephants in the east of the country, many of which have migrated from Ghana, Benin and Nigeria. About 400 elephants are though to inhabit western Burkina Faso.

Tourism related to elephant viewing has proved beneficial for people living in the areas around the concessions.

Burkina Faso at present allows 600 sightseers and hunters (of animals other than elephants) into the country each year to enjoy its wilderness areas. This earns locals a total of almost $43 000 a year, no small matter in a country where—according to the United Nations Development Report for 2003—about 60% of the population exists on less than $1 a day.

The government says more than 500 permanent and 1 200 seasonal jobs have been created by tourism and hunting. People in the areas around concessions also receive three-quarters of every animal killed during the hunting season.

“We’re proud to present these elephants to tourists, who come [from] the world over to see them. It’s a mark of success for us, and it shows the strength of those who helped to preserve them by living alongside them,” says Kabore.

Former poachers are now employed as guides and in other capacities by concession owners. The construction of schools and clinics for people in hunting or game areas has also afforded opportunities to tell people about the need for elephant conservation.

Nevertheless, the expansion of the elephant population is not without its problems.

“The elephants do a lot of damage, especially in the maize, millet, and cotton fields. When they pass through the orchards, everything gets broken up. It looks as if the trees were chopped down by people,” says Karim Ye, a hunting guide and farmer from Boromo in the east of the country.

But he does not hold a grudge.

“We’re the ones who helped save them when they were threatened. That’s why their number is so large today.”

Kabore says elephants also tend to turn watering holes into mud baths. A water point that might last for five to six years when used by other animals, gets clogged up within a year when elephants are in the area.

Concession owners are obliged to clean out these watering holes, a process that takes two weeks of pumping with equipment that must be brought from Ouagadougou.

“It costs a fortune,” Kabore exclaims.

The owners also have to repair trails used by elephants, which sometimes create potholes in the paths as they walk back and forth along them.

Two years ago, owners asked the government for permission to hunt one or two elephants a year to help them meet these costs.

“The government should find ways and means of compensating us, we who contributed so much to the preservation of the elephant,” says Kabore.

Sawadogo admits to being “concerned” by the increasing elephant population. But authorities claim their hands are tied in this matter by international animal protection accords.—IPS

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