(Updates with African elephant population in seventh paragraph.)
Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Oscar Sery says he cycles to his banana and cocoa farm every morning in Ivory Coast with a sinking feeling about what he will find.
“I’m afraid the elephants will have destroyed my crops,” Sery, a 39-year-old wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, said in an interview on Jan. 19 in Toroguhe, a village of 250 people near Daloa, the nation’s third-biggest city. “I’m scared to meet them in my plantation.”
Ivory Coast started moving the animals from Toroguhe and three other villages last week after villagers threatened to kill about a dozen elephants that wandered into the area from Marahoue National Park two years ago. The elephants’ forest habitat was decimated during a decade-long political crisis that began in 2002 with a military coup that ignited a civil war and divided the country in two, allowing illegal logging and poaching to flourish.
The forest elephants’ population from West Africa to Central Africa has dropped by as much as 62 percent in the 10 years through 2011, according to The Elephant Listening Project, the Ithaca, New York-based not-for-profit research group. A few hundred roam Liberia, Ghana and Ivory Coast, which derives its name from the elephant’s prized tusks and calls its national soccer team, led by by former African Player of the Year Didier Drogba, The Elephants. WWF, the non-profit wildlife conservation foundation, lists them as “facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.”
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW, has lent a veterinarian and is providing a third of the funding for the $750,000 project to move the animals. The operation is “highly risky” and it’s the first time that forest elephants, smaller than the more common African elephants that roam Africa’s savannas, have been relocated, said Céline Sissler- Bienvenu, head of IFAW operations in France and French-speaking African nations. Two of the six elephants they captured last week have died. One drowned in a swamp and another perished from a heart attack.
“It’s really rare to see forest elephants so close to people,” she said in a Jan. 20 interview in Daloa.“The coexistence is not so harmonious and that’s why we really need to move them somewhere else. If we don’t do that operation, we know they will be killed.”
Poaching of all elephants in Africa is at the highest level in more than a decade, as demand for ivory from China and Thailand drives prices higher, according to Traffic, a wildlife- trade monitoring group. There are about 410,000 to 650,000 African elephants in about 35 nations on the continent, Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders said last month. Population estimates for forest elephants varies widely because they are harder to count in dense forests.
Forest elephants weigh as much as five metric tons (11,023 pounds) and stand as tall as 3 meters (10 feet) tall, compared with six tons and a shoulder height of 3.4 meters for African Elephants, according to the WWF’s website.
About 80 percent of Marahoue’s 101,000 hectares (249,576 acres) have been destroyed by human settlement, she said. The lack of habitat has made forest elephants one of the most endangered among the three species of elephants.
After being darted with a tranquilizer fired from a gun, the elephants are transported to the national park of Azagny, 500 kilometers (310 miles) southeast of Daloa, a 19,400-hectare area designated in the list of Wetlands of International Importance, compiled by the 168 nations that are party to the Ramsar Convention, an agreement for the protection of wetlands.
“It’s highly risky,” Sissler-Bienvenu said. “It’s very difficult to access the forest elephants. It’s a very discreet species, it’s difficult to see it. The dense vegetation makes the approach difficult.”
The presence of elephants fueled tensions with the local population as the animals damaged the farmers’ crops, and killed a few people, Forestry Minister Mathieu Babaud Darret told reporters Jan. 16 in Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, 385 kilometers south of Daloa.
Brigitte Zohore, a 43-year-old mother of three who often met the elephants while going to get water at the village stream on the other side of the road, said she is relieved the elephants will soon be gone.
“They are huge and very scary,” she said. “Because of them, we struggle to eat.”
Farmers in the region harvest cocoa, coffee and staple crops such as banana, cassava and yams. Ivory Coast is the world’s biggest cocoa producer and the country’s west is the main growing area.
Some villagers, like Sery, are pleased that the elephants are being preserved.
“The elephants are the soul of Ivory Coast”, Sery said. “We can’t support Didier Drogba and The Elephants, our national football team, and then kill the elephants”
--Editors: Andres R. Martinez, Antony Sguazzin, Sarah McGregor