Likening the underutilized parkland to untapped oil, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
She spoke in the compound three weeks after her son’s death, wearing a black-knit mourning cap, his 2-year-old, Bera Eslie, sitting fitfully in her arms. Ms. Kolikpa has struggled with suicidal thoughts since the death, she said, with one thought stopping her: Who will support her grandchildren?
“He just told me, ‘Mum, I will be back soon,’” she said.
Mr. Gbédji set out to meet his clients for the 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,” Ms. Kolikpa said, her face crumpling. “My son died with an empty stomach. He passed away hungry.”
The Red Zone
Becoming a certified Pendjari guide requires formal schooling. Mr. 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.