Elephants Race Against Death (Democratic Republic of the Congo)


Emilie Blachère, Paris Match

Date Published
See link for photos. 
They fall prey to poachers. Veterinarians, biologists, and Director of Garamba fight against the destruction of this species.

Pete Morkel shoulders the rifle, aims, and shoots. The blast spreads panic among the elephants, which scamper, uttering furious trumpeting. Their wild ride shakes the ground of the savannah. Terrifying. Before us, about twenty meters, a colossal female of thirty-six years slows, stumbles, wobbles. Almost instantly, the other elephants seem to overcome their fear and regroup near her; they see danger. They are trying to prevent her fall, and when she collapses in wild herbs, they try to lift her with their trunks. They do this with such force that one of them, a blow from defense, cuts his right ear.
The elephant remains on her affected side. She gasps, her eyes shining. Pete Morkel and the men in military uniform accompanying him straighten, then shoot into the air bursts of Kalashnikov, then approach the screaming animal. The herd runs away.

Now the female is alone, facing fifteen humans. These are not poachers but rangers from Garamba National Park. Pete Morkel is veterinary anesthesiologist, a leading specialist of large African mammals. There was no bullet in his gun, but a shot to put the elephant to sleep: nine milligrams of etorphine, “a sedative three thousand times more potent than morphine,” says Pete. While talking to me, he strokes the rough belly of the beast.

Pete is a charismatic, slender, strong man with tanned skin and emerald green eyes. A man of the South African bush, born in the former Rhodesia, he often goes barefoot in the savannah when he has had enough of his worn boots. He wears black shorts or khaki jeans, T-shirts, a faded cap.

“Cannot get tired of this business,” he says. “It’s always a great emotion . . . Elephants are social animals with great emotional complexity. Elephants fascinate me. They are smart, supportive, loyal and free.” In The Roots of Heaven, Romain Gary also described them as “the greatest living image of freedom that still existed on earth.”

It took us several days travel over 6,000 miles to meet these free giants in the last elephant sanctuary in central Africa, northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African sub unstable and southern borders Sudanese. Flight hours, 4 x 4 on bumpy and dusty roads, brisk walk in rolling plains still wet and muddy swamps full of bugs, mud up to one’s thighs. Flying his microlight, Luis Arranz, an energetic superintendent with a Spanish accent and sky-blue eyes, guides scientists to identify herds of elephants. Faces and bare arms are slapped by tall grass as we walk through the bushy savannah and Kigelia Africania, the sausage trees. It is an expedition under a blazing sun and a hazy sky, a harsh climate, fortunately swept by gusts of refreshing air.
Here and there are baboons, warthogs, snakes, cobs of Buffon, hartebeest, crocodiles, hippos, giraffes. On the other side of the plain, motionless giants stand in the distance, looking like granite statues. We approach them. Pete Morkel is in the lead, followed by two young Spanish biologists, Pablo Perez Schapira and Marina Monico, who are passionate, bubbly, and friendly. Rangers with armed assault rifles frame them. We take one step pressed in silence, facing the wind, because “elephants hardly see, do not hear much, but they can feel miles away,” whispers Marina in perfect French. After half an hour, about thirty meters from us, there stand nearly three hundred large and peaceful animals who are dangerous or even fatal if they charge with their tusks weighing up to eighty pounds. . .
The elephant just woke up. She will join the rest of the herd. © Alvaro Canovas

There are females with their calves suckling, and some young adolescent males. They eat their daily one hundred pounds of plants and leaves. Whenever we see them move their trunks and big ears, a smile rises to our lips. Their enormity, their bulky awkwardness, their gigantism fascinates. After three and a half years in the bush, Pablo is, like us, moved: “They are animals so sensitive, sociable, players of great emotional complexity. They are amazing!”

“They were still 20,000 of them in the 1970s,” says Luis Arranz, in a growling voice of suppressed anger. “Now they are less than 2000, all massacred by the slaughter outside the law. In ten years they will be gone . . . the situation is critical. Organizing seminars and conferences in offices tidy in the West is useless. It is on the ground here that we must act and spend the money! It’s now or never. Their backup is a sacrifice, a daily struggle, probably doomed to failure if nothing changes.” The manager did not hide his impatience or pain at seeing herds decimated by Ugandan and South Sudanese armed groups, locals, treacherous rangers . . . and the Congolese national army. The average base salary is about 15 euros per month and is 40 euros for a soldier.

“The Congolese justice system is lacking, our government, corrupt”
Luis, discouraged, says that in 2009, “When the 11,000 soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo [FARDC] came to the park patrol to deter rebel militias and protect us, they preferred to kill dozens of elephants and sell their ivory and their testicles.” It was more profitable. Besides the carcasses were found red berets of the Republican Guard. Nothing stops. Congolese justice is non-existent because our government is that corrupt. He dips to the neck in traffic white gold. More than 200 kilometers from Garamba, in the capital, Kinshasa, which is a busy and congested city, President Joseph Kabila neglects the “Elephants” folder; others are more topical. Since January 2001 he has overseen this vast territory whose basements are among the world’s richest in minerals: silver, uranium, lead, zinc, cadmium, gold, tin, tungsten, manganese, coltan . . .

The DRC has the second largest global copper reserves, with 10 percent of the total identified, especially 50 percent stocks and 30 percent cobalt diamond. The country could be one of the greatest world powers, yet it is not. Resources are looted by militias, mostly supported by the border states and Western multinationals. Among them, the Tutsis of M23, the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the self-defense Mai Mai, or the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), exiled forces, all of which are notorious for their bloody atrocities among the population. The DRC is a powder keg. Since the cycle of war opened in the former Zaire in 1997, the army has never been able to combat these movements. Peace processes have helped to mitigate, but never to break or militarily respond to political grievances. While Rwanda this year commemorates the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, the Democratic Republic of Congo still has its dead – nearly 5.4 million based NGOs – the 3 million displaced and 400,000 women raped during the two last decades.

More than six million Congolese are always hungry. “For many Africans, an elephant, it is over five tons of meat,” recognizes Pete Morkel. It is obvious that few understand the money spent to save them. Leaning on the elephant asleep, Pete keeps faith and hope. “One person can change everything if he is motivated and passionate fighter,” he reassures.

Specialists checks the temperature of the elephant and makes measurements: length, height, circumference of the legs, the number of fingers and teeth. The animal has a thick skin, dotted with black hair and covered in mud. Helped by the guards, Pablo and Marina put around the neck a mastodon GPS collar, wide as a hand. “Thanks to the signals sent by satellite,” they say, “this is the only way to monitor three times per day location groups to observe the migration routes, identify animals killed. Six animals have them. Soon, there will be eleven more.”

The delicate operation was a success. Dozens of white and black vultures circle, hungry, over our heads. Pete injects the antidote. Then the team escapes into the thickets happy. In less than two minutes, the elephant wakes up, stands up, and walks, clumsy, one her own, free to this beautiful horizon where the only limits are those of vision. Now, she is protected.