“The Hunt For Africa’s Most Notorious Elephant Poacher”

From Smithsonian July/August 2014 Issue: By Joshua Hammer

In March 2013 at his home in Bere, a village of subsistence farmers deep in the sorghum and cotton fields of south Chad the call came in to Gary Roberts. Roberts, 36, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, experienced bush pilot and amateur conservationist who sometimes flies research missions for Chad’s wildlife department, climbed into his single-engine, four-seat Cessna.  Reports were circulating, a local conservationist told him, that a mass killing of elephants had occurred some 100 miles away near the Cameroon border.

Eighty six [86] elephants had been killed. The sole survivor of the massacre, Roberts would learn, was a 9-week old calf, captured by villagers, roped to a tree and taunted day and night by the village boys. Roberts tracked down the location, drove there and loaded the weakened and traumatized orphan into the back of a pickup truck. He then drove several hours to the landing strip where had had parked his Cessna. After an all-night vigil, he used a container of milk to lure the elephant onto his plane, flew to his mission and tried to nurse the calf back to health. “He saw his whole family murdered, then ran around looking for his mother, then was tortured and abused for a week,” says Roberts, who even inserted a tube into the baby’s stomach to force-feed him. “The emotional condition of an elephant like that-it just shuts down.” the elephant, whom he named Max, died after ten days in Robert’s care.

The Sahel, the vast, arid zone that lies between the Sahara and teh Sudanese savanna, once supported a population of a million elephants. Nineteenth-and early 20th century Western travelers wrote with amazement about the huge herds that roamed the bush, and the contest between the great animals and the Baggara Selem, Sudanese horsemen who pursued the herds with ten-foot-long spears.”Among the Selem, several are so dexterous that they can bring the elephant down with a single thrust of the lance,” observed Jules Poncet, a French ivory hunter who joined the chase in the 1860’s. But sport turned into slaughter in the 1970’s fueled by a proliferation of assault rifles from the continent’s post-colonial bush wars. A 1989 international ban on ivory tamped down the bloodshed, but China’s growing wealth and insatible hunger for ivory-carved into brush-holders, boxes, statuettes and other intricate pieces-has pushed the numbers back up. Six ears ago the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the United Nations body that regulated the international wildlife trade, declared China an “Approved Ivory Trading State”-allowing a one-time legal sale of ivory from four southern African countries, which at the time had large and healthy elephant populations.  The sale to China of 62 tons of ivory from African stockpiles in 2008 reopened the door for a vast illicit market-by making the task of distinguishing legal from illegal ivory next to impossible. In Hong Kong, one of the ivory trade’s main transit points, seized ivory rose from 3.2 tons in 2010 to 7.9 tons in the first ten months of 2013 -the equivalent of 1,675 dead elephants. Vietnam, Thialand, Taiwan, and he Philippines have also become major purchasers of elephant tusks. In December 2012, Malaysian authorities seized 1,000 elephant tusks hidden in secret compartments in two shipments of mahogany from the West African nation of Togo. The 24-ton seizure, worth tens of millions of dollars, is believed to be the largest such haul in history.

Now the Sahel has again become a killing ground. A year before the Fianga massacre, in February 2012, Roberts had also been nearby when 100 raiders on horseback had galloped out of Chad into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park, mowing down between 300 and 600 elephants with AK-47s and rocket – propelled grenades. The killers stopped to pray to Allah between barrages of gunfire and played a cat and mouse game with the Cameroon army for two weeks before disappearing into the bush. Of the 50,000 elephants that roamed Chad 50 years ago, barely 2 percent are left. In the neighboring Central African Republic and Cameroon, the population may be even lower. Poverty, bribery and insecurity are all contributing factors in a region where a single large tusk can sell on the black market for $6,000-ten times the annual salary of a typical worker.  Many conservationists say that if governments don’t do more to protect the remaining herds, the last elephants could disappear within a generation.

“What is special about elephants is just how similiar they are to us-socially and developmentally,” says Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford ecologist who has written four books based on her Namibian field reserach on elephants. ” If you watch a family group reuniting, their behavior is exactly like ours-the little cousins darting off together, the elaborate greetings of adults. Elephants offer a way of looking into the mirror, for better or worse,” she adds. “If we value human rights, we should also value animals that have the same level of sophistication that we do.  We should keep those beings with us here on earth.”

Last June, the government of Chad declared a significant victory in its often-faltering attempts to save its most endangered species. The Mobile Brigade for Environmental Protection, directly under the control of President Idriss Deby Itno, captured the alleged mastermind of the March 2013 killings at Fianga, and many other massacres. Hassan Idriss Gargaf, 38, was said to command a gang of gunmen who rampaged across the Sahel over the last few years, growing wealthy from the sale of ivory and leaving a trail of dead elephants in its wake.  Chad’s minister of the environment issued a press release calling Gargaf a “recidivist poacher,” the “mastermind” of some of the biggest elephant slaughters in Chad’s history and “a pivotal player in the international poaching network.” He was the worst of the worst,” says Adoum Mahamat Brahim, a park ranger turned regional environmental chief  who tracked Gargaf and his accomplices. The rise and fall of Gargaf sheds light on the combustible mix of corruption, desperation and globalization that is fueling the African poaching explosion. It also reflects the dedication of a handful of conservationists, rangers and other environmental crusaders who are determined to bring the killers down.

Weeks after his arrest, Gargaf, too, escaped from custody-walking out unchallenged from teh militar barracks in Ndjamena.  “He came and went, he was well taken care of. One day he didn’t come back,” Brahim says with disgust. Now he was back in operation along the Chari Rier flowing through farmland south of Ndjamena.

The Cameroon army captured the poacher again in 2012. Gargaf again got away. A few months later came the massacre of the 86 elephants near Fianga, Brahim traced Gargaf to a new base in Gore, in southermost Chad, beside the Central African Republic border. “I told my informant there, “If it’s day or night, it doesn’t matter, if you see Gargaf returning home, you call me. ” Brahim said. Then, last June 14-hours after the informant tipped off Brahim that Gargaf was  back-a Mobile Brigade force broke down the door of Gargaf’s house and placed him under arrest. Interrogated after his capture, Gargaf maintained that he was just a small-timer. “I’m not hiding anything,” he told his interlocutors. “I’m a cattle trader… hired by poachers to guide them in their operations, for which they offered me one million francs[$2,500]. It was a proposition that I found much easier than trading cattle.” Gargaf admitted only to helping his group kill ten elephants around the Chari River, “and after they dispersed, I went back to herding cattle.”

A few months after Gargaf’s third arrest, I joined Rian and Lorna Labuschagne on a game drive through Zakouma to observe the progress they had made in stabilizing the onetime war zone. At midday, the best time for observing elephants in the wild.


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