Rangers massacred by elephant poachers they tracked via satnav (DRC)


Jerome Starkey, The Times

Date Published

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Bullets zipped past the helicopter as Frank Molteno, its pilot, swooped over the forest looking for his wounded comrades.

The grass was so tall between the trees that he could not see the poachers shooting at him but he heard the flat crackling” of their gunfire.

Then he saw a white flag thrashing frantically in the foliage trying to catch his attention.

It was 3pm on October 5, and wildlife rangers from Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, had just suffered their third fatal attack of the year.

Poachers in Garamba include soldiers from neighbouring South Sudan, which is in the grip of a civil war; members of Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, and Arab hunters who come on horseback from as far away as Chad and Darfur.

According to African Parks, the South African charity that manages Garamba, at least 96 elephants have been poached this year. Rangers have been involved in 28 gun battles, in which five poachers died.

The poachers responded by killing five rangers and three soldiers from the Congolese army, in three incidents, making Garamba and its three adjacent reserves one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to try to protect wildlife. Mr Molteno knew that, as he skimmed across the treetops.

“The hazard here in Garamba is when you engage a poacher you might be engaging a villager with a bow and arrow or a rebel faction from a neighbouring country,” he said.

He and a team of rangers had tracked a gang of heavily armed poachers beyond the western boundary of the Azande reserve, which flanks Garamba’s western border. Their radios had stopped working because they were out of range. They had to rely on sign language instead. “I could barely see the flag in the thicket. But I could see by their gestures that they were frantic to get out of there,” he said.

The rangers on the ground were terrified but the bush was too thick to land. Instead Mr Molteno, a South African in his 60s, dropped a homemade sling — six padded loops suspended from a double length of cord — beneath the belly of the Eurocopter and manoeuvred it between the trees.

“The bush was was so thick I couldn’t see how many had got on,” Mr Molteno said, as he paced up and down at the park’s headquarters in Nagero. “I gave them five seconds and then I lifted.”

He did not realise that his aircraft had been hit.

The operation to track the poachers had started five days earlier when the radio signal from a collared elephant, known as G35, pinged twice from the same place.

Collars are programmed to ping only twice every 24 hours and often they do not work, especially if an elephant is in a forest of thick foliage that blocks the satellite signal. A missed transmission is not suspicious, but two signals from the same location can mean only one of two things: either the collar has come off or the elephant is dead.

“G35 was a large male elephant with broken tusks who had been collared since October 2014,” Mambo Marindo, the assistant warden in charge of the park’s operations room, said. The pings placed G35 on the banks of a stream that flows into the Aka river. “We found the carcass from the helicopter on the afternoon of September 30. He had been dead for approximately one day,” Mr Marindo said.

The poachers had camped next to the carcass, because they had no reason to rush. Garamba and its three reserves — Azande, Mondo Missa and Gangala na Bodio — cover 12,427 sq km, almost the size of Northern Ireland, and African Parks has fewer than 130 rangers with which to patrol.

The elephant’s tusks had been hacked out with an axe and, for some unknown reason, — perhaps simply because it looked valuable — the poachers had taken the radio collar with them. On October 2 it pinged again.

From the control room in Nagero, 55 miles away, Mr Marindo tracked the gang as they walked five miles the first day, then seven miles the next, towards the edge of the Azande reserve. He said that they were not covering much ground because the bush was thick.

The terrain is veined by the swamps and tributaries that are the headwaters of the mighty Congo river. The grasses grow up to 12ft tall. Their stems, as thick as fingers, snag, trip and tear. And the poachers were carrying at least two heavy tusks.

However, at 8.44am on October 5, the collar had stopped moving. The poachers were camped just outside the reserve. Erik Mararv, the park’s director, decided to go after them.

“Our first priority is law enforcement,” he said. “In order to be sure we have something to protect we need to protect it now.”

A team of ten rangers led by Colonel Jacques Lusengo, from the Congolese army, took off in the helicopter to find them. Because it could carry only five passengers at a time Mr Molteno carried one group ahead before going back for the others. “I was leap-frogging them in, five at a time,” he said.

They flew to the co-ordinates that the collar had transmitted on October 3, so as not to land right on top of the poachers. Then the rangers had to leap out while the helicopter hovered because the grass was too tall to land.

“They hung off the skids and jumped,” Mr Molteno said. “The first five cut a [landing zone] and I went back to retrieve the others.” He returned to land with them. “Then I shut down.”

One ranger stayed with Mr Molteno to guard the helicopter. Colonel Lusengo led the eight others into the bush.

“They thought they were following a small group, fewer than five people,” Mr Marindo said. “It was the same number of tracks they had found at the carcass.”

What none of them realised at the time was that the poachers had made it back to their base, a large paramilitary cattle camp with at least five enclosures, which was outside the boundary of the reserve.

The rangers were armed with assault rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a PKM heavy machinegun but they were outnumbered at least three to one. “They walked straight into an ambush,” Mr Molteno said.

The gun battle lasted 20 seconds. From the landing zone Mr Molteno heard a “heated firefight” in the distance.

He waited 15 minutes as per their plan, but when no one had returned he took off to look for them.

Moments later he had six men dangling from his sling and ferried them back to the clearing. One had been shot in the shoulder.

The pilot flew him and an escort back to headquarters, where there was a field hospital, leaving four men at the clearing and another four unaccounted for.

“They told me they were missing comrades and they needed reinforcements,” Mr Molteno said.

The four missing men were Colonel Lusengo, Captain Kimbesa Muhindo, Sergeant Gada Migifuloyo and Corporal Adalu Uweko.

It was only back at headquarters, when Mr Molteno shut down to refuel, that he realised that his helicopter had been shot. One bullet had lodged in a battery. The second had torn through the tail, almost severing the driveshaft that powered the rear rotor.

Taking off was out of the question. “It would have been extremely dangerous, even lethal, to fly,” Mr Molteno said. Without a rear rotor, helicopters spin out of the sky. The rangers were on their own and there was no way to warn them.

It took Captain Arianne Lado, the head of Garamba’s anti-poaching teams, two days to reach the scene of the firefight by road. He took 38 armed men with him, but the poachers had long gone.

Instead they found their comrades’ bodies, stripped, robbed and stretched out in the grass.

Colonel Lusengo and Sergeant Migifuloyo appeared to have died instantly. But Captain Muhindo and Corporal Uweko were initially only wounded. They had managed to crawl about 25 metres to the shelter of a tree, but they were shot again at close range.

The poachers, who the survivors described as Arab-speaking cattle herders, stole the rangers’ weapons, their uniforms, their boots, their radios, a satellite phone, a scanner for tracking radio collars and a GPS transmitter which was still turned on.

Its batteries lasted two days. Once again, the rangers in headquarters could see where the killers were going.

This time they did not give chase.