Poacher Turns Protector to Save Elephants in Africa
CAMP KOMBO, Cameroon — Desire Dontego is no longer an elephant poacher but he can still boast like one.
"I was known as the killing machine," he declared after darkness fell in the Cameroon rainforest, the constant chirping of insects the only sound apart from his voice.
Dontego, a 39-year-old father of three, now works on a project to protect endangered species rather than kill them.
In densely wooded southeastern Cameroon, the authorities and global conservation organization WWF are trying to clamp down on poaching as part of a broader effort to preserve the forest.
Their approach has involved everything from boosting forest patrols to helping local people find alternatives to bushmeat.
The guards who patrol the remote region on foot and by boat along the majestic Sangha river, all say they have seized less bushmeat over the past few years as the measures have taken effect.
"There has clearly been a change," said Lucien Abagui, a guard at a forest lodge near the Boumba Bek national park. "Poaching in the region has gone down."
But Dontego's own story shows how hard it is to get poachers to give up for good in the Congo Basin, the world's second largest rainforest region which stretches over six countries and is home to about half of Africa's wild animals.
Some 400 mammal species live here, including half of the remaining forest elephants on the continent.
Dontego said he was making between 500,000 and 600,000 CFA francs (about $975 to $1,170) a month as a poacher in the early 1990s in a country where average income is just $640 a year.
"I was my own master," he recalled at a base camp for conservationists where he now works.
Fish Not Flesh
Dontego would mount several expeditions a week with a team of 12, including six Baka pygmies who live deep in the forest and know it best, aiming kill two elephants each time.
They would take all the meat and ivory away with them, Dontego said, leaving only the skin.
Poachers, who often target antelopes and monkeys in this region as well as elephants, are motivated not solely by money but also by tradition and the need to find food.
The thick vegetation teems with wildlife, although it is not always easy to see among the endless shades of green. The crack of branches echoes as elephants rummage for food. The cheeping and chirping of birds and insects is constant.
Conservationists are encouraging local people to think more about fish and fruit instead of hunting animals.
Bending down in a stream that flows through the forest, about a dozen women dip circular nets into the water. They raise them to reveal catches of small reddish-brown prawns.
WWF has paid for their nets. This small-scale fishing does not destroy the environment and the women's catch is doubly valuable because it can be eaten or sold.
"It's thanks to this that we can send our children to school," said Therese, one of the women, dressed in a skirt and blue vest.
Arguing that hunting should not be banned completely, authorities have set aside zones for local communities and safari companies where limited hunting is allowed. Communities can also rent out their zones to the safari firms.
But conservationists know they also have to take on the organized poaching networks who will not abide by any rules.
That can be a dangerous job. A poacher hacked off a WWF driver's hand with a machete last November in the Campo-Ma'an national park in southwestern Cameroon.
"Killing Machine" Nearly Killed
The guards who patrol the Southeast complain that the poachers are always armed yet they have pistols that fire only tear gas.
But they also say police and judges now take poaching much more seriously. And many of the seizures they make are due to tip-offs from ordinary citizens, indicating their attitudes are also changing.
Desire Dontego's attitude changed after he heard an American conservationist tell local communities about the importance of wildlife some 10 years ago. He began to feel bad about poaching.
"I was really shocked," he said. "I felt like a child who has broken a glass and gets beaten for it."
He gave up poaching and began working with conservationists as a translator and animal tracker. One of the elephants WWF monitors in the area now bears the name Desire in his honor.
Other environmentalists applaud the crackdown on poaching but wonder what will happen when the well-funded WWF goes. Will Cameroon be ready to pay to keep up the prevention measures?
Even Dontego was tempted back to poaching once, about eight months after he vowed to abandon it, because conservationists had left the area and there was little other work.
But the expedition went wrong and served only to strengthen his decision to give up. An angry elephant charged at the hunting party, grabbed Dontego with its trunk and tried to crush him underfoot. He managed to escape between the animal's legs.
"I took that as a bad sign and a lucky sign because I think if there had been a second time, I would be dead," he said.