Bullet wounds show poachers are attacking from a helicopter (DRC)


Jerome Starkey, The Times

Date Published

See link for photos (note: paywall).

When rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo found the rotting carcasses of eight dead elephants under a tree, they recognised the signs. It was the fourth time since 2012 that they had found a large family group corralled together and killed.

Elephants tend to scatter if they are shot by poachers on foot. If there are no human tracks leading to the scene, and the carcasses are found with bullet holes in the top of the head, there is only one reasonable explanation, according to Erik Mararv, the director of Garamba National Park: they were shot from above, by poachers in a helicopter.

A family of 22 elephants were killed in the first such incident, in March 2012, and 12 more were discovered in similar circumstances the following month. The animals’ tusks had been hacked out with an axe, but the poachers hadn’t taken any meat to sustain themselves on what would have been a long march home — more proof, according to Mr Mararv, a former big game hunter, that the poachers used a helicopter.

The third incident, last year, left eight elephants dead. Eight more were killed in the most recent episode, in August this year, five miles north of the Garamba park headquarters, in Nagero.

There are a number of helicopters stationed around Garamba and its three adjacent reserves, some owned by private contractors hired by American special forces to hunt Joseph Kony, the fugitive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). UN peacekeepers based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and aid workers in South Sudan also travel by air on occasion.

However, the only time blame was apportioned was in 2012, when park officials and the Congolese wildlife authority, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), accused the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) of carrying out the slaughter. The UPDF routinely flies Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters through Congolese airspace, to support troops fighting a civil war in South Sudan.

In April 2012, rangers photographed and then challenged a low-flying military helicopter making an unauthorised flight over Garamba. Staff from African Parks, the charity which manages Garamba together with the ICCN, said the helicopter beat a hasty retreat. However, the UPDF later dismissed claims that it was involved in poaching. Lieutenant-Colonel Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman, said it was “inconceivable” that a UPDF officer would ever “risk a helicopter to hunt for elephants”.

He told The Times yesterday: “There is nothing to investigate. Our troops are holding ivory worth thousands of pounds confiscated from LRA. Our presence has stopped LRA from depleting that resource.”

In July last year, a few weeks before the rangers found evidence of the third helicopter hunt, they photographed an Mi-17 making another unauthorised flight, but it was too far away to identify.

In the most recent incident, the rangers found the carcasses about a week after the elephants were killed. The poachers had taken the tusks — and also the elephants’ sex organs, which are sometimes used in traditional medicine.

All three of Garamba’s aircraft — two light planes and a Eurocopter Squirrel — were either abroad or out of action at the time; a fact that park staff suspect the poachers may have known. “It would be naive to think that there isn’t an attempt to gather information that is valuable,” said Frank Molteno, the rangers’ helicopter pilot.

Since 2009, scientists at Garamba have fitted 28 elephants with radio collars that transmit their location twice a day. Since 2013, nine of the collared elephants have been poached.

“These animals move a lot, so much so that, even if we have the points from a few hours before and then fly to that herd, we often struggle to find them from the air, let alone on the ground,” said Jean Labuschagne, head of special projects at Garamba.

Helicopter poachers would have to spend time and money looking for their quarry. Garamba and its three adjacent reserves cover almost 5,000 square miles — about the same area as Northern Ireland — most of it covered in forest or tall grass.

“It requires quite an investment in flying to find the elephants,” said Mr Molteno. Helicopters cost millions of pounds to buy and thousands of pounds to fly. “It’s not economically viable to risk losing a helicopter for the sake of some ivory, which would suggest it’s not their helicopter.”

He said that the culprits were “probably affiliated with a military” that absorbs the costs. “If a helicopter doesn’t identify itself and we don’t recognise it, we will take measures to stop its activity,” he said. “Just give me a 20mm cannon, with exploding shells.”