Shootout in Garamba


Peter Canby, The New Yorker

Date Published

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On April 29th, the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, addressed the inaugural meeting of the Giants Club Summit, a conference held near Mount Kenya that is devoted to combatting the accelerated destruction of Africa’s elephants. Soaring ivory prices have led to the slaughter of at least a hundred thousand elephants in recent years; perhaps only four hundred thousand African elephants remain. Scientists and conservationists are talking with increasing frequency about the possibility of extinction in the wild. “It is important to appreciate the wider dimension of the poaching of elephants,” Kenyatta told the gathering, which included several other African heads of state. “There is convincing evidence poaching is aided by international criminal syndicates. It fuels corruption. It undermines the rule of law and security. It even provides funding for other transnational crime.”

Kenyatta’s words might have had a particular relevance for Erik Mararv, the manager of Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Mararv was in no position to hear them: he was in a hospital bed, recovering from injuries incurred in a shootout with poachers six days earlier.

“I was incredibly lucky,” he said. “A bullet entered through one leg and then passed cleanly through the other. It severed the thigh bone but didn’t damage any of the main veins or nerves.”

Garamba is one of Africa’s older national parks, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is managed by African Parks, a not-for-profit organization that, in partnership with governments and local communities, manages ten sites across Africa. Within Garamba’s two thousand square miles, savanna grasslands intersect with the dense forests of the Congo Basin, and the park is home to animals from both ecosystems—hyenas, lions, buffalo, many species of antelope, giant forest hogs, the last Kordofan giraffes in Congo, and the country’s only significant remaining population of elephants. (Until recently, the park sheltered the world’s last wild population of the northern white rhinoceros as well, but, except for three individual animals in captivity, that species has been poached into extinction.) Garamba’s elephants are a hybrid of Africa’s two elephant species—forest and savanna. They have the larger size of savanna elephants and the long, straight tusks of forest elephants, making their ivory particularly sought after. In the nineteen-seventies, there were more than twenty thousand elephants in Garamba. Today there may be as few as fifteen hundred.

Mararv, who is thirty, was born in the Central African Republic, where his father, a Swede, ran a well-digging company. For much of the last decade, Mararv managed Chinko, a remote hunting camp in the southeastern Central African Republic, similarly rich in wildlife; under his tenure, it evolved into a conservation area. He moved to Garamba, in May of 2015, because, as he put it to me, it was “one of the world’s last true wild places” and was threatened by criminal and terrorist groups.

Garamba lies on the edge of what Mararv referred to as a “political wasteland”—a lawless region abutting Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic—where there is virtually no government. The area is subject to raids by the janjaweed from Darfur, army units and militias from both North and South Sudan, and followers of Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, a movement that steals, rapes, pillages, and deploys kidnapped child soldiers. Until Garamba acquired a helicopter, a few years back, the northern two-thirds of the park had essentially been ceded to Kony’s forces. In recent months, the L.R.A. guerillas have increased further in number, and are believed to be operating out of Azande, a hunting area just west of the park.

All these groups want ivory. The Enough Project, a Washington-based N.G.O. that focusses on preventing genocide and other atrocities in Africa, reports that poachers in Garamba tend to be “heavily armed groups using professional techniques,” and that some of them have been involved in numerous Central African conflicts and carried out atrocities against civilians.

The park has invested heavily in security. In addition to its ordinary rangers, Garamba’s managers have also created an élite, heavily armed rapid-reaction force. At park headquarters, in the town of Nagero, there is a base for perhaps a hundred Congolese soldiers. Together with the rangers, they operate inside the park against poachers and outside it against the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Last October, a ranger unit tracked a group of poachers carrying a signal-emitting collar belonging to an elephant they’d killed. When the rangers arrived by helicopter at the poachers’ camp, it proved substantially bigger than anticipated. The poachers, believed to have been South Sudanese army regulars, were equipped not just with AK-47s but with a Soviet-made P.K.M. belt-fed machine gun. They killed three rangers and a Congolese colonel before the rangers could retreat.

Mararv’s encounter began when a ranger inside the park heard a series of shots and alerted headquarters. Mararv took off in the helicopter, picked up five rangers, and headed toward the poaching site. From the air, they spotted a dead elephant lightly covered with brush, its tusks not yet removed. The helicopter put down a few hundred yards away, and the men disembarked and began advancing on a tree line. The poachers, who were lying in wait, opened fire. Mararv and three of the rangers were hit. As they were being evacuated, the helicopter itself was also hit. The wounded men were taken by a U.S. medevac to a military base in South Sudan, and from there to a U.N. hospital in Bria, a regional capital in the Central African Republic, where two of the rangers died. Mararv was flown to South Africa to have his femur rebuilt. The third injured ranger, whose wounds were less severe, has returned to Garamba.

Despite the casualties, Mararv said, the park’s efforts to stabilize the region continue to receive popular support. Under attack from the Lord’s Resistance Army, villages around Garamba have been abandoned and the villagers have fled into larger towns. Mararv believes it is the park’s mission to offer services to these towns, and to the surrounding population more generally. In addition to the several hundred jobs that the park administration provides, he told me, it also improves the lives of thousands of other people, through health care, education, and the creation of potable water systems.

“The groups that are poaching are the same ones that are abducting people, raping people, and stealing food and money,” he said, and stopping them means a lot to the local people who make up the ranger base. “They recognize the importance of what they’re doing, and they want to work for it.”