OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The land used to be a tourist magnet, a haven for elephants and lions. Now park officials in the West African nation of Burkina Faso say extremists have turned wildlife reserves into a battlefield, targeting rangers and exposing endangered animals to poachers.
The forest takeover marks another violent chapter in Burkina Faso’s four-year fight against militants loyal to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State who are vying to control vast swaths of West Africa. The government-protected reserves offer a double dose of value to armed groups, analysts say: secluded places for hideouts and illegal poaching activities to exploit.
Attacks have doubled in Burkina Faso’s rural areas every year since 2016, forcing more than a million people from their homes in what the United Nations has called the world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis.
The conflict has also devastated tourism in the country, which drew crucial income from campers, hunters and animal lovers. Now leisurely excursions throughout the verdant, hilly terrain are unthinkable, park officials say. Even the guardians have retreated.
Two years ago, more than 100 rangers worked in reserves across eastern Burkina Faso. “Now they have all withdrawn to the outskirts,” said Paul Djiguemde, who leads the force.
At least eight rangers and local guides have died in the chaos since 2018, he said. So have dozens of Burkinabe soldiers who were sent in to protect them.
Assailants have torched every ranger station but one in the Burkinabe section of the 4.2-million-acre W-Arly-Pendjari park. (The transnational property, which is also part of Niger and Benin, is nearly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.)
Visitors from around the world once flocked here to enjoy the sights. Now no one enters the woods without a military escort.
Dozens of rangers have received combat training in an effort to strike back, guiding special operations through the grounds, park officials say. The fighters hide their weapons and train in the otherwise uninhabited forest, which offers rare leafy cover in the semiarid region.
Kabore, a Burkinabe ranger since 2011, signed up to protect his country’s wildlife.
The job was simpler then. He loved spotting animals. His favorite are lions.
“Despite the harm that this animal can do, it is a shy animal when we walk in the park,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It hides.”
When peace began to fray, Kabore volunteered to train with the army and join special missions to search for extremists.
One day in 2018, the men received a tip about an enemy hideout. They sneaked through the woods with rocket launchers. Then they fired toward the spot, hoping to scare the fighters off.
Their opponents fired back, killing one of Kabore’s comrades on the spot. He remembers a blur of bullets and calling the army for backup. Before the military plane arrived, though, the rangers had won.
They inspected the hideout, which contained a cache of bombs, guns and ammunition. Its occupants had fled.
But what stood out to Kabore was something he rarely saw in the forest: the clothing of women and children. The place looked like a small village.
It dawned on him then: This wasn’t a temporary base.
“If they moved there with their families, they are never going to abandon the park,” he said, “unless we are able to get rid of them.”
The land he loves is home to scores of valuable animals, including the world’s biggest population of endangered West African lions.
Lion skins sell for up to $2,100, according to Panthera, a conservation group tracking lions in the region.
About 350 of the big cats roam the park and have been spotted in adjacent hunting concessions, according to the researchers’ latest tally. (Lion hunting was legal in Burkina Faso until the operations closed in 2017 because of the diminished security.)
As militants chased away rangers, poachers gained easier access to the lions, elephants, crocodiles and various types of antelope, said Djiguemde, the ranger leader.
“Poachers who manage to get in are in cahoots with the terrorists,” he said, “and with the absence of park employees, poaching has intensified.”
The true scope of the problem is hard to quantify, and evidence linking insurgents to poachers is lacking. But rangers on missions have found them together in the woods, Djiguemde said.
Conservation groups can no longer track the estimated 150 lions on the Burkina Faso side of the border with Benin. Two lions collared in Benin vanished last year after entering the country.
“A team crossing over to investigate just found the cut-off collars,” said Philipp Henschel, Panthera’s West and Central Africa director.
On a recent visit to a market in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, a reporter saw two lion hides for sale.
The militants aren’t known to hunt the animals themselves, but poachers probably pay them a tax to conduct their illicit business in the parks, the rangers say. Otherwise, it would be too dangerous for the poachers to move through the park.
Such shadowy arrangements are an old militant tactic.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group from northern Uganda led by warlord Joseph Kony, profited from elephant poaching in East Africa. The Janjaweed militia of western Sudan faced accusations of slaughtering elephants in northern Cameroon.
“That is the common practice for these groups: to identify where illicit activity is going on and tap into it,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
In West Africa, militants have staged attacks in several previously calm wildlife reserves.
Fighters stormed the Giraffe Zone in southwestern Niger last month, killing six French humanitarian workers, their Nigerien driver and a guide. And in May 2019, gunmen kidnapped two French tourists from Benin’s Pendjari National Park and killed their guide.
Paquette reported from Dakar, Senegal.