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Here, Ivory Traders Exploit More Than Elephants

The Baka of Cameroon know the Congo Basin better than most—including where to find elephants.

WATCH: Elephant Poaching Forces This Community to Take Sides

The Congo Basin bursts with wildlife—monkeys swing from branches, leopards prowl, geckos scuttle up and down tree trunks. And the Baka, an indigenous group that has long inhabited the tropical forest in southeast Cameroon, are students of this rich biodiversity. They know where animals travel and when, and they know which tree bark can cure ailments such as difficulty breathing. (It’s called abanga).

“They’re real scientists in the forest,” says Hanson Njiforti in the short documentary above, produced by New York-based filmmaker Mariah Wilson for National Geographic. Nijforti is the director of WWF’s central Africa branch, which works on the ground in Cameroon to help conserve animals.

The Baka also know how to track elephants—expertise that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Capitalizing on the Baka’s impoverishment and forest wisdom, traffickers have been drawing them into the increasingly sophisticated and organized global ivory business. In exchange for meager fees or even just a pack of cigarettes, Baka have been guiding professional poachers to elephants.

“People profit off their knowledge of the environment and the forest to get them to do all sorts of things,” Njiforti says.

The Congo Basin is home to forest elephants, which are smaller than savanna elephants. Both species are being killed at alarming rates for their tusks: Poaching of forest elephants drove a 62 percent decline in their numbers from 2002 to 2011, according to one estimate, and it’s believed that nearly 30,000 savanna elephants are slaughtered every year. The contraband ivory ends up in shops around the world, particularly in China, Japan, the U.S., and Europe, where it’s often carved into artwork and tchotchkes.

Kingpins and high-level dealers can reap hefty profits selling black market ivory, which one report estimates wholesales for $330 a pound in China. At the other end of the supply chain, poachers are often impoverished villagers, who make pennies in comparison.

The Baka traditionally hunted elephants only to provide meat for weddings and other special occasions. “It wasn’t about ivory,” says Bosso Andre, a Baka man featured in the film. “It was about a community meal.”

But as demand for ivory has escalated, so has the plight of the Baka. In recent years government leases with mining companies and agro-industrial firms, as well as the creation of NGO-backed wildlife reserves that restrict access to hunting and fishing, have forced many Baka out of their territory and into villages on the forest fringes. This has deprived them of access to wild fruits, medicinal plants, and other items for their own use. It has also diminished their ability to sell game and forest products.

Njiforti says the vastness of the Congo Basin, which spans 1.5 million square miles, makes it difficult to measure the scale of the Baka’s participation in elephant poaching. But it’s clear that not all Baka engage in it. In fact, some are trying to help protect elephants by working as anti-poaching eco-guards. The guards are employed by the Cameroonian government, Wilson explains, but the WWF provides funding and support for the positions. (Despite the good intentions, the organization has faced criticism for alleged abuse and intimidation of the Baka by non-Baka guards. Njiforti told Wildlife Watch in an email, however, that WWF is committed to helping protect the Baka and has trained guards to respect their rights).

Andre, for one, fears the extinction of a species that’s beloved by the community.

“Our children should see elephants too, not just in pictures,” he says. “We should let elephants live in the forest like everyone else.”

Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.