When bandits slaughtered 650 elephants in just weeks in one of the most remote national parks in West Africa, it was an atrocity that shook the conservation world. Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, IFAW Country Director France and Francophone Africa at the time was one of the few people with the contacts and the capabilities to expose the outrage.
Celine is perhaps unique in modern conservation. The first European student and woman to graduate from the Wildlife Specialists School of Garoua (L’Ecole pour la Formation des Spécialistes de la Faune à Garoua) in Cameroon, her training in a mostly male paramilitary environment gathering 15 African cultures gives her a highly influential network of connections across French-speaking Africa.
“The elephant poaching event in Bouba Njida National Park in Cameroon was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. I had studied these elephants very closely in 1998 and so, in 2012, when I rushed to Cameroon to try and stop the tragedy, it was very emotional to see so many poached elephants with trunks and tails cut, tusks missing,” says Celine.
“The experience ignited a strong sense of urgency within myself. When you witness such a massive event, you realize that time is running out for endangered animals, they need us to act. Now!”
Celine says her training as a conservationist at the Garoua Wildlife Specialist School taught her confidence.
“It was male-dominated and paramilitary in approach. I have to say that I never faced any problems, nor was it a big issue for me and certainly it taught me to stand my ground. It taught me the skills to bring together African team members of different hierarchies and for us to work together for a common goal,” she comments.
“I try to create motivation and a clear purpose of where we want to go together and in doing that, forgetting where we come from and the social boundaries that hinder progress. The female vision helps to get a group to become interested in an individual animal and its welfare, and to collaborate to support that.”
Celine joined IFAW in 2008 as a campaigner. She had previously worked for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and says when doing the research to inform her career move, it was IFAW’s consideration for wildlife and landscape protection without forgetting animal welfare that attracted her.
“The intrinsic value of every animal is recognized and each individual matters to me and to IFAW. The organization’s diversity is also a key strength and helps us to be more strategic.
“When I look around, I grow impatient. We need to go faster to protect our world. Nature needs us to be courageous to take risks in order to save her. It is a wonderful heritage with a lot of responsibility. Our individual but also collective mission is to protect nature and the world for future generations, not the opposite. It is a challenging but exciting journey to make and I think organizations like IFAW can help,” says Celine.
In 2013 in the Ivory Coast, she fronted the initiative to move four elephants at risk of human-wildlife conflict to a safe protected area where they thrive. More recently, Celine worked to rescue Nania, an orphaned elephant calf rescued in Burkina-Faso. The elephant is being cared for by a rehabilitation center.
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“Rescuing Nania was important and pioneering for IFAW. She is a forest elephant and the first of her kind to be rehabilitated. We hope to reunite her with her original family even if we know it will be difficult and even if that is not possible, I am confident that one day she will reintegrate into a wild herd, even if it is not her native one,” says Celine.
Closer to home (Reims, France), Celine helped drive the campaign that led to the European trade ban on seal products.
“It was proof that we can all have a positive impact. To think of all those hundreds of thousands of seals we have saved by the ban is a very powerful emotion. The positive impact is even bigger today knowing that seals face loss of habitat due to climate change,” she says.
The arrival of COVID-19 has been both a frustration and a challenge for Celine and conservationists in general.
“What I feel most strongly is the sense of urgency. COVID is an example of what the future could look like if we do not change the paradigm of how we deal with nature. It is sad to say, but COVID is one of the expressions of our footprint on nature.
“Through our wildlife crime-related work, we have been warning for years that sanitary risks could emerge by manipulating, trading, breeding and destroying the wild. Now we have an impressive and terribly sad example of that,” says Celine.
Despite restrictions Celine has worked to keep activities in the field on track.
“It is also very hard for a doer like me, a field person, to stay home for such an extended period. On the other hand, it is amazing that we can continue to work, and that is the most important thing. Staying in contact with teams who do not have internet connection or only very intermittent is challenging and frequently we are only able to communicate through WhatsApp,” says Celine. Celine cites the facing and adaptation to these challenges as fundamental preparation for her new role as she now transitions to Senior Program Officer of IFAW’s Disaster Rescue & Response (DRRR) team for Europe.
In wrapping up, Celine gave us this message:
“Protect nature to make it healthy – your life depends on it. We can all play a role small or big. For example, if you have the opportunity, plant specific flowers attracting pollinators on your balcony, your garden, any space you can, that will help to bring back biodiversity.
“I invite everyone to truly look at nature. You will always find something interesting and may see the wonder of it. In the street, a park, a garden, a forest. Observe it, hear and look at the birds for instance. Taking the time to do that is also welfare for yourself and will contribute to heal the link with nature that is disrupted. Being interested and compassionate about living beings different from humans teaches us to accept the differences that exist between ourselves and to be more tolerant and compassionate. It is a virtuous circle.
“We can all do something, we can all take small steps to make a change. For example, my 13-year old daughter and I have a challenge every month. What is it we can change to reduce our footprint on the world and live more sustainably? We take it as a game – but actually it might be a game changer”.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Celine Sissler-Bienvenu squatting next to the elephant, Nania, in Burkina-Faso. Featured Photo Credit: IFAW.