DRCongo: Between Rebellion and Elephants, Military Has Many Enemies (DRC)


Africa #1

Date Published

Poachers of elephants in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are legion: rebels, soldiers, pastoralists, armed horsemen, many actors of chaos in this tormented region at the confluence of the Central African Republic in crisis and Sudan South war. Tirelessly guards roam the vast Garamba National Park, in groups of five helicopters in remote areas of the park. Once deposited in a clearing, they begin nine days of patrol, in complete autonomy, to watch elephants and hunt down poachers.

The year 2015 was challenging for them: 114 elephants (against 132 in 2014) were slaughtered despite their efforts, nearly 10 percent of the population of elephants in the park. “We fight against truly dangerous groups, they are soldiers. It’s a real war,” sums up Ghislain Somba, deputy head of the park, seconded by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN).

Each year, more than 30,000 elephants are killed in Africa to supply an illegal trade to Asia, especially China where ivory is trading around 1,000 kilo euros. Some of the elephant tusks stored in the double round local park weigh more than 30 kilos.

In Garamba, the South Sudan, the northern border of the park provides the largest contingent of poachers. The country sank there over two years into a devastating civil war. The effects were soon to be felt on the other side of the border. “I consider South Sudan as a whole an armed group,” says Erik Mararv, thirty, Park Superintendent sent by the South African organization African Parks, who co-manages the reserve with ICCN. His men have repeatedly arrested South Sudanese poachers and seized weapons and uniforms of the army of the government of South Sudan (SPLA). About “80 percent” of elephants killed in the park are by South Sudanese armed groups, says Mr. Mararv.

Rhino Exterminated

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the notorious Ugandan rebel group with its litany of massacres and mass kidnappings in thirty years of existence, is also involved: now reduced to about 150 fighters, but especially rampant in Central Africa, the LRA is also engaged in poaching, using ivory’s value as a bargaining chip to obtain weapons. “The LRA is a sunset organization,” cautions Mr. Mararv. “There is always poaching stamped on LRA but if you look at the whole phenomenon, including the South Sudanese poaching, it does not mean much.”

This has not always been the case. In the afternoon of 2 January, 2009, the LRA attacked Nagero, the park headquarters on the south bank of the River Dungu, killing ten people.

Among the victims was Silu Masika, a young woman of eighteen who had given birth to a baby a week before. Her father, Alexis, a guard of the park, now raises the child and ruminates on his anger. “If I come across an LRA, I shoot him,” he promises. Congolese villagers living around the park sometimes engage in poaching of elephants, but they hunt more readily antelopes, buffaloes, and hippos for meat.

Elephants Garamba are also targeted by Sudanese Janjaweed militia, perched on their horses, which have been able to mount poaching expeditions across central Africa some many months.

In early 2012, they shot about 300 elephants in Cameroon, Bouba N’Djida in the park, then a few months later, stretched a deadly ambush against guards in Zakouma Park in Chad.

The Janjawid are considered by associations of animal rights as the main party responsible for the extermination over the years of the white rhino, the last of which disappeared in 2006 from Garamba Park.

Helicopter Poaching 

Nomadic stockbreeders armed with Kalashnikovs— flights of herds are common in this party of the continent— still made incursions in the north of the park the last year to graze their animals. They took the opportunity to launch raids against elephants from their camps.  In October, 2015, three nurses and a Congolese soldier were killed in a fusillade with stockbreeders. Since then, explains Mararv, the park authorities have pledged to arrest anyone found in possession of a weapon and the ephemeral camps have vanished.

One final group of poachers, the most mysterious and best equipped: his men slaughter elephants from a helicopter. The first known incident was in March 2012 when 22 elephants were eliminated in two days, all killed with a bullet in the head fired from the air. The latest attack involving a helicopter dates back to August 2015. Pointed at by the Congolese in 2012, the Ugandan army has denied any involvement. “So far we do not know where these helicopters but we are investigating,” says Somba. Meanwhile, the guards and park officials do not give up. “I do not want my children to ask me, ‘Where are the elephants,’ as they ask me now? ‘Where are the rhinos?’” explains storing Tamwasi, who lost his daughter in the ivory war.