A new trail cuts through the tall savanna grasses in Vera Plaines, ending abruptly at the forest edge. Not a good sign, I think, as curiosity leads me to a slash opening in the forest wall. A narrow footpath disappears into the trees, and on to an underworld of poaching operations in Gamba. Once inside the forest, the trail winds among machete-clipped saplings. A faint smell of smoke laces through the odor of moulding leaves and rain-soaked earth. Fifty meters ahead, the corrugated tin roofing of a hunting shack glows under diffuse forest light in a clearing carved out of jungle. It is uncannily silent. A few crickets and a far-off cicada create a lonely soundtrack to this outpost of illegal activity.
Hunting is not permitted in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, which includes Loango National Park, Moukalaba-Doudou National Park and the industrial corridor between the two national parks. Everything about this camp spells hunting, from the rolls of wire to be made into snares, a staked confinement pen to hold some unfortunate forest creature, an open-slat table for the smoking and preserving of bushmeat. Piles of porcupine quills deteriorate around the edges of camp, animals easily caught in snares and often served in restaurants throughout Gabon.
A leg bone from an elephant covered in knife-cuts lies to the side of the clearing, suggesting the possibility of ivory trafficking. Like spokes radiating from a wheel, hunting trails disappear into the jungle, leading to traplines where animals are snared and collected.
Camps are used opportunistically, some on weekends, some through the night by people that may have day jobs in Gamba. Even when not occupied, their traps remain active and can inflict inhumane suffering and eventual starvation as animals are left to rot in the forest, dangling from a springpole with a wire around their leg. The waste and suffering is incomprehensible.
This camp lies in the foothills near if not actually inside the buffer zone of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. It would be an easy forest walk to access the wildlife of the national park without alerting park guards, as this side of the park is not accessible by roads and therefore has limited security patrols to protect the populations of elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and leopards that have recorded on my camera traps before the cameras were “mysteriously disappeared”.
From a little subsistence-level fishing village 50 years ago, Gamba has grown to a population of 9000, most of whom have arrived to work for or contract to Shell Gabon. With plummeting oil prices, Shell Gabon is reducing its workforce, forcing many of the 9000 inhabitants of Gamba to leave or find another source of income. A new road from Loubomo to Mayonami has made it easy for those inclined to access the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas. Markets in Tchibanga and cities as far as Libreville are now within range of bushmeat harvested in the Gamba Complex. Gamba is now experiencing a new wave of potentially devastating exploitation.