West Africa’s elephants are in more trouble than any others on the continent. Most populations are tiny, living in small patches of forest surrounded by farmland, under threat from poaching and human elephant conflict and struggling to survive. Ivory Coast’s elephants have suffered more than most, but there are signs of hope that some at least may be able to survive.
Ivory Coast has suffered more from deforestation that almost any other country in Africa, thanks to its position as the world’s largest cocoa exporter. It had enjoyed many years of peace and prosperity, surrounded by more volatile neighbours, but there was much more concern about keeping the West supplied with chocolate than protecting forests and wildlife. When a decade of political disturbance started in 2003, things got even worse, as cocoa farmers, most from neighbouring countries, descended upon the small national parks and forest reserves, chopped down the trees, and either killed or chased out the wildlife.
Many of the small number of surviving elephants became ‘internally displaced’ - hiding out in a landscape dominated by man, becoming very secretive, and appearing and disappearing at irregular intervals, suggesting that they are moving much longer distances than is usual for forest elephants. It is likely that these tiny groups will fail to find mates, that they will be lost one by one to poachers or to starvation, and will gradual disappear – a sad harbinger of what may happen in more and more of Africa as human populations and infrastructure development increase.
However, on a recent visit to Ivory Coast with the PAMS Foundation, funded by the ECF to assess opportunities for elephant conservation in the country, we did come across one place where this apparently inexorable fate may be reversed. In one mountain-top national park, the National Parks Department was able to move out the illegal cocoa farmers, and some elephants have moved back. They actually seem to be enjoying the devastated forest, since they can feast on the bananas and papayas planted by the illegal farmers, and local villagers say that crop-raiding has reduced since the elephants have got their home back. When we visited, there were abundant signs of elephants of all ages, and a local researcher has caught images of several elephants on camera traps, including one magnificent tusker.
So not all is lost, though we don’t know how large a patch of forest is needed to maintain a viable elephant population in the long term and whether this particular forest is big enough. There are still two large national parks (Taï and Comoé) where elephants have survived in larger numbers than had been feared and the wildlife and forestry officials have shown a renewed interest in protecting the survivors, so we can hope that the name of the Ivory Coast may still refer to the present reality of the country rather than just a historical memory.