DRC: The Survival of the Garamba Park Miraculous


Africa #1

Date Published

With chronic insecurity,  regional conflicts, difficult terrain and isolation, preserving the Garamba National Park in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo is a huge challenge, perhaps more than anywhere elsewhere on the African continent. “The very survival of Garamba is an absolute miracle,” Chris Thouless, of Save the Elephants nature conservation organization does not hesitate to say. “This is one of the most troubled parts of Africa.” The region is at the confluence of many conflicts: North, South Sudan plunged into civil war in 2013; the neighboring Central African Republic has known almost three years of inter-communal violence; and the eastern DRC is still plagued by armed groups.

The challenge is simple: Forty years ago, the park was home to nearly 500 northern white rhino, 23,000 elephants and 350 giraffes. Today, rhinoceroses have disappeared and there are less than 1,500 elephants and giraffes number just thirty-eight. The first time Pete Morkel visited Garamba to place markers on necklaces rhinos in the 1990s, Garamba was different. “It was very easy to see rhinos and there were many more elephants, hippos  . . .  just a lot more of everything,” said the Namibian veterinary, aged 55. 

In February, he returned to the park to equip elephants and giraffes with the same device, after they were administered a sleeping pill with a dart fired from a helicopter. Eight giraffes and twenty-eight elephants are already equipped, allowing conservationists and park rangers to follow their every move. The population of Kordofan giraffes, the last living in the DRC, is particularly at risk and special protection units are charged with ensuring their survival.

“A So Unlikely Corner”

But for the rhino, it was already too late when African Parks, a South African organization for the defense of nature, began in 2005 to co-manage the park with the Congolese authorities.

In 1980, Garamba joined the World Heritage of Unesco, with the aim of protecting rhinocéros. 

But the inscription was not enough to save them. The battle is now on other species.

 “The Garamba is one of the toughest national parks in Africa today,” said its director Erik Mararv, thirty, who has guards, soldiers, a helicopter and a plane to monitor 12,400 km2 of forest and savannah. “This is a special place, in a corner so unlikely.” The sky over Garamba appears limitless, standing over an undulating savannah, composed of grass scorched, like the quills of a porcupine, and scattered sausage trees, from which dangle fleshy fruits.

The landscape is parched, with some winding rivers and speckled old anthills.

Garamba was founded in 1938, making it the second oldest park in Africa, after the Virunga, a little further south. Some old photos in black and white, of an elephant domestication program, are all that remain of that time. They show Westerners wearing a pith helmet, sitting on a cart pulled by an elephant, or on richly adorned horses, in the middle of which are elephants and people lined up perfectly, as for the coronation ceremony of Babar. Today, the human presence in the Garamba Park is minimal, such as cars. Animals are so nervous. An elephant fled in one step, heavy in a cloud of dust. Antelopes point their ears and stop before jumping into the bush.

Elephants Killed At an Unsustainable Pace

Tourists do not exist here but Erik Mararv hopes to change that by 2017 by making the park viable long term. He imagines a mobile camp of canvas tents to complement the lodge of the Dungu River. The cost of management of the park is $3 million (€ 2.7 million), largely financed by the European Union although Mararv is looking for other sources of funding and thinks to build a hydroelectric dam on the many rivers of the region, all tributaries of the Congo monumental, to sell electricity to mining companies nearby.

But for this dream to come true, we must ensure the safety of the park. Even if  2015 was a difficult year, there is still a positive trend compared to the previous year. “There is a huge improvement in security in Garamba, but elephants are still killed at an unsustainable pace,” said Chris Thouless. It manages a bottom (Elephant Crisis Fund), created by a donation from the American actor Leonardo DiCaprio in 2014, supporting the protection of endangered elephants, including Garamba.

Despite the turmoil of previous years and the risk that continues to hang over the animals, the park authorities are hoping—and want to believe—that a page is about to be turned. “Today I am optimistic for Garamba,” said Pete Morkel. “There is discipline and determination. This is a  park that works.”