PENDJARI NATIONAL PARK, Benin – As a safari guide in a sprawling wilderness preserve in West Africa, Fiacre Gbédji often seemed no different from the tourists in his care: He gushed at each lion sighting and thrilled at each bushbuck he spotted through the trees.
But when Gbédji and two French tourists he was guiding deep within Pendjari National Park were kidnapped by terrorists, the international response to the men involved was far different.
The tourists were rescued 10 days later by the French military. Two French commandos killed during the mission were given solemn services in the heart of Paris.
Amid the international attention on the kidnapping, Gbédji disappeared; if he was mentioned at all, it was mostly just “their guide.” He was shot and killed by the kidnappers, officials said, his remains eaten by animals.
But Gbédji’s name has become a fearful omen in Benin, a small West African country wedged between Togo and Nigeria. It was emerging as a safari destination, and Pendjari, under new leadership, as a jewel of the country.
The kidnapping has upended that progress and drawn attention to how the terrorism wracking Burkina Faso and other neighbors could also threaten Benin.
Al-Qaida and ISIS-linked groups have pushed toward Benin as they flee military assaults on their former strongholds in Mali and Niger, according to security experts. They have found recruits and refuge under cover of dense parkland.
In Natitingou, Gbédji’s hometown outside Pendjari, the residents have lost not just a neighbor, a father of six with another on the way, but their sense of security.
Now legions of guides haunt empty hotels, stood up by tourists who canceled their trips.
Today, Benin’s military patrols among the crocodiles and hippos in Pendjari, eyeing the Burkina Faso border. Here, Gbédji’s death seems evidence that without immediate measures, Benin, a robust, mostly peaceful democracy, may not be immune to terrorism’s contagion.
Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, who took office in 2016, has made bolstering tourism a priority. Home to 1,700 elephants, Pendjari is part of a three-park complex that sprawls across Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin.
Likening the underutilized parkland to untapped oil, Talon has committed at least $6 million to the 1,800-square-mile park. In 2017, he allowed African Parks, a South African organization, to take over operations.
The influx of tourists helped Gbédji support his six children — and their six mothers. “It was a gift of God that the ladies loved him,” his mother, Justine Kolikpa, 63, said with a laugh.
Gbédji set out to meet his clients for that day — two French music teachers, Laurent Lassimouillas, 46, and Patrick Picque, 51.
He didn’t ask his mother to make his favorite packed lunch, spinach with corn dough for dipping. “He brought no food with him,” Kolikpa said, her face crumpling. “My son died with an empty stomach. He passed away hungry.”
Becoming a certified Pendjari guide requires formal schooling. Gbédji added personal passion: He knew every watering hole and lion’s den.
And he knew where not to go: To the north is the Pendjari River, dividing Benin from Burkina Faso. On official maps put out by the French and American governments before his death, the river marked a red line. On its northern side, Islamist militants are active and tourism is “formally discouraged,” according to the French Foreign Ministry.
On that shore, insurgents fleeing south from French military operations in Mali and Niger have started to embed. They recruit by exploiting tensions between herders and farmers, competition over resources made scarce by climate change and frustration at abuse by government forces.
Last year, Burkina Faso was hit with 137 attacks by Islamist groups, compared to just 12 in 2016, according to data from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“The challenge for governments is that the jihadists have in many places been able to address people’s short-term needs for stability and rule of law,” said Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. Often, militants provide needed order before escalating violence as their ideology takes hold, she said.
Jihadis have pushed south into the three-park complex, where they’ve found food and refuge from air surveillance, said Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, the director of the West Africa office of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank.
Extremists in Burkina Faso and Niger have attacked forestry agents, forcing many to flee that side of the park.
Gbédji’s body was found in Burkina Faso around May 5, according to Marcel Ayité Baglo, the general director of Benin’s homeland security agency. Only Gbédji’s skull and scraps of bone and clothes remained. He was identified by the trousers he wore, Baglo said.
Gbédji was buried under a pile of stones in the shape of a cross inside the park.
The French tourists and two other hostages were rescued. The kidnappers were taking the hostages to terrorist cells in Mali, according to the French military.
The kidnapping is still shrouded in mystery. No terrorist group has claimed responsibility. The French tourists declined interview requests.
Gbédji’s sister, Prisca, said that when he was killed, it was the first time she had ever considered that terrorism could come to Benin. Now she believes the threat has taken root.
“There is no smoke without fire,” she said.
Prisca she said she longs to visit Gbédji’s grave — but never will.
She is too afraid of what else may be in Pendjari Park.