DAKAR, Senegal — Gunmen killed eight people Sunday at a wildlife reserve in Niger, including six French humanitarian workers, their Nigerien driver and a guide, according to authorities.
The group had traveled to Kouré reserve in an area known as the Giraffe Zone, home to the only remaining population of West African giraffes. But they had been there for less than an hour when they were shot, their car set aflame and their bodies left in the sand.
“It was horrific. We couldn’t even look at the bodies,” said Djibo Hama, a spokesman for the Association of Kouré’s Giraffe Guides, who saw the aftermath of the attack. “They had been brutally shot with bullets, but also flamethrowers had charred the car and some of the people. It was terrifying to see them lying on the ground in their own blood.”
Some areas of Mali have been rocked by terrorist attacks in recent years, as have several neighboring West African countries. But the Giraffe Zone has been widely considered safe. The visitors were French humanitarian workers, authorities said.
“Investigations are underway,” Abdourahamane Zakaria, a government spokesman, said in a written message confirming the attack. A senior police officer said that he was coordinating the recovery of their bodies.
Six French expatriates, a guide and a driver passed through a government checkpoint at 10 a.m. Sunday in the direction of Dosso, a town 85 miles southeast of Niamey, the capital, according to an internal message from the Nigerien military seen by The New York Times. Forty minutes later, the message said, people on a bus coming from Dosso informed staff at the checkpoint that an attack had taken place 4 miles back.
One of those killed was Kadri Abdou, president of the Association of Kouré’s Giraffe Guides, according to an announcement posted on Facebook.
“Kadri, along with a group of six French tourists and their Nigerien driver, was attacked and killed by a terrorist commando in the giraffe zone,” it read. “We are distressed and are thinking of the victims and their families, to whom we offer our most sincere condolences — especially the family of Kadri, our friend.”
Images that circulated among journalists and military personnel on WhatsApp showed the gruesome scene of the attack. The group had been traveling in a car that belonged to the French humanitarian organization ACTED, according to a statement by Niger’s interior minister.
The giraffe reserve is a popular attraction in Niger, particularly on weekends. There are now 600 giraffes there, a remarkable turnaround from 1996, when there were thought to be only 49 left.
Niger is home to Air Base 201, a U.S. drone base that was recently completed but may soon be abandoned under a planned drawdown of U.S. forces in the region.
Though Kouré is in the region of Tillaberi, where four American special forces soldiers were killed in an attack in 2017, it is far from the site of that attack, which was on the other side of the capital. It also welcomes many visitors.
“Kouré is an area that has never known the slightest security incident, but even in the current context, the worst we would expect would be the kidnapping of Western tourists, not a direct assassination,” Hama said.