Restoration of wildlife in West Africa

A herd of elephants feed around the water hole in late afternoon at Pendjari National Park near Tanguieta, Benin. Pendjari National Park is one of the largest intact ecosystems in West Africa.
A herd of elephants feed around the water hole in late afternoon at Pendjari National Park near Tanguieta, Benin. Pendjari National Park is one of the largest intact ecosystems in West Africa.
Image: STEFAN HEUNIS

Jean-Marc Froment leant against a railing at the lodge in Pendjari National Park in Benin's far north, and spotted about 40 elephants drinking at a large water hole.

Almost in slow motion, a group of adults - their trunks and ears pointing forward - chased away two female lions watching nearby and stood in the way of other predators so their young could quench their thirst in safety.

"See how they're arriving calmly? That was unthinkable a couple of months ago. They were still very nervous," said Froment, the head of conservation for African Parks.

Froment, who is originally from Belgium, moved to Benin four months ago and has spent his working life across Africa, helping countries to protect their national parks, which have often been destroyed by decades of conflict.

Benin isn't at war. But Pendjari, more than 12 hours by road from the economic capital Cotonou on the Atlantic coast, has suffered years of political and economic neglect.

The 4700-square-kilometre park is one of three straddling the borders of northern Benin and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

It's one of the last sanctuaries of untamed wildlife in West Africa, whose flora and fauna have been forgotten since French colonial days.

Pendjari has suffered poaching of elephants for ivory, illegal hunting and tree felling.

The director of Benin's National Agency for the Promotion of Heritage and Tourism Development (ANPT), Jose Pliya, said the park was "dying a slow death".

The government set up the ANPT to speed up the implementation of new projects, with President Patrice Talon having made tourism a key priority of his five-year tenure.

"The head of state often compares Benin's rich heritage and culture to untapped oil deposits," said Pliya.

Only about 200000 visitors came to Benin in 2014-15 but Talon has an ambitious aim to attract one million between now and 2021 and create 100000 jobs in the next decade.

"We're working on six projects across the country and at the moment Pendjari is the furthest forward," said Pliya.

To bring a park of such a size back to life, Benin has needed to find investors willing to put in $26-million (R308-million) over 10 years.

In Rwanda, gorilla conservation programmes have made tourism a leading money-spinner, bringing in $400- million (R4.7-billion) in revenue in 2016. Benin wants to follow suit.

There are currently only estimates of the number of lions, buffalo and hippos but a census is being undertaken.

"There was no way of flying in the park before. But it's a must," said pilot Stephane Carre.

Collars with satellite tracking devices have been fitted onto a number of elephants and lions. That will help determine where to deploy some of the 60 or so new rangers trained to protect the animals.

Whether the park will aim at travellers from the luxury market or a younger, backpacker clientele is unclear at the moment, said park director James Terjanian.

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