The Bloody Toll of Congo’s Elephant Wars


Tristan McConnell, GQ

Date Published
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Fifteen shots felled the elephant. It was a few weeks into Congo’s springtime rainy season, and the animal, an adult male, collapsed among dense green stalks of yard-high grass. A few miles away, Dieudonné Kanisa, a compact and muscular Congolese ranger, heard the shots as he patrolled the northern bank of the meandering Garamba River, looking for poachers. With his four fellow rangers beside him, Kanisa moved toward the gunfire.

Back at headquarters, the manager of Garamba National Park, Erik Mararv, grabbed his rifle and headed for the park’s helicopter with pilot Frank Molteno, a South African with a lifetime’s experience flying all kinds of aircraft, often in places without runways or rules. Mararv, a lean 32-year-old Central African–born Swede, oversaw the rangers tasked with protecting Garamba, a park the size of Delaware in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The 80-year-old World Heritage Site is an immense stretch of savannah and woodland in the heart of Africa, a gently undulating landscape of nine-foot-tall elephant grass and scattered sausage trees, interrupted by swamps and pocked with the scars of abandoned termite hills. It is also home to one of the largest, most threatened populations of elephants in central Africa. In the past three years, 13 rangers have been killed in 56 shoot-outs with poachers. The corresponding elephant death toll in that time: 256.

Every rifle shot in Garamba sets off a dangerous race to find the carcass before poachers can chop out the tusks and make off with the ivory. Less than 20 minutes after the elephant was felled, Molteno located a clearing and put the helicopter down next to Kanisa’s rangers. Every extraneous piece of equipment had been removed to make space for the rangers, who clambered in with their weapons. Everyone aboard the chopper had an AK-47 assault rifle. One clutched a grenade launcher.

The poachers had covered the dead elephant with camouflage—branches and thick stalks of grass—making it hard to spot from the air. Mararv and the rangers swept low over the area for the next 45 minutes, finally spotting an eddy of vultures, which indicated a carcass below. Molteno prepared to land. As the helicopter closed in, Mararv could see bloody hatchet marks in the animal’s face, but the tusks, a modest 22 pounds each, were still in place, meaning the poachers were likely close by. Such tusks might earn a few hundred dollars for the poachers, but by the time smugglers ship the raw ivory to China, it could fetch more than $14,500.

Molteno landed about 500 feet from the carcass, allowing Mararv and the rangers to jump out before the helicopter took off again. As the noise from the rotors faded, the firefight began. The six men dropped low, fanned out, and edged forward, shooting. As they approached, the poachers responded with a hand grenade that exploded 15 yards in front of them. Kanisa discovered, too late, that their own grenade launcher had been left behind in the helicopter.

Mararv was the first one hit. The bullet came from the left, punched through his right inner thigh, and smashed clean through his femur, leaving a fist-sized exit wound. His shattered leg gave way beneath him and he tumbled to the ground with a cry. Orodrio Dodo, a talented young ranger, crawled through the waist-high grass to Mararv’s side and cinched a tourniquet tight around his leg. Moments later Richard Sungudikpio Ndingba was hit. The bullet entered from the left, just below his rib cage, tore through his chest cavity, and exited through his right side. Kanisa heard him crumple and ordered Pipili Langotsi, a 20-year veteran ranger, to help him.

Bullets snapped in from the front and left. Then, from the right, came a shrill whoop as a third group charged out of the bushes, shouting and firing. Ranger Dieudonné Tsago Matikuli, the closest to the poachers, was shot in the head. Outnumbered and outgunned, with three rangers down and two assisting the wounded, only Kanisa was now shooting back. He fired in short bursts—left, front, right—until he too was hit, a bullet gouging a deep furrow in his right forearm and heaving him backward, the rifle knocked from his grip.

Mararv handed Dodo his last magazine, with 30 rounds, and urged him to go back to the others. Dodo crawled forward to rejoin Langotsi in holding off the poachers. To his left, Ndingba and Kanisa lay wounded in the long grass, with Matikuli dead nearby. Mararv hauled himself away from the firefight, hoping to use his radio to reach Molteno, but there was no signal. They were in a dead zone.

Six months after the attack, I arrived in Garamba aboard a single-prop Cessna piloted by Alain, a jolly, middle-aged Frenchman in a pilot’s shirt with epaulettes, who didn’t want his full name printed (“I am hiding from my wife,” he explained with a grin). From the air, the park reveals itself as a near-flat expanse of grassland abruptly replacing the rock-pierced forests to the south.

The poaching threat here is not from opportunistic locals, encroaching farmers, or illegal subsistence hunters. Instead, Mararv and his units are up against uniformed gunmen from South Sudan, Janjaweed horseback raiders from Darfur, armed cattle herders from Central Africa and beyond, the extravagantly brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) and, on at least three occasions, unidentified helicopters that killed elephants from above with single shots to the skulls. The different factions commonly have powerful patrons in the government or military from their home countries, who shield the poachers from prosecution and profit from their crimes. The result has been a catastrophic collapse in African elephant numbers, which have fallen by a quarter in the past 10 years to an estimated 415,000.

As we approached the park headquarters, Alain banked low. Thatched rondavels and tin-roofed houses were clustered in the crook of a wide bend in the Dungu river, whose placid surface was broken by snorting pods of hippopotamuses. We made a bumpy landing on the grass runway and found a ranger waiting in the shade of a small corrugated iron hangar. The short drive from the airstrip took us past a red-brick church, a swept parade ground, a warehouse that was recently renovated after being damaged by an L.R.A. assault in January 2009, and a padlocked ivory store.

The rangers regularly face opponents with assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. In the weeks before the April 2016 incident, the rangers had been tracking, but never quite catching, a group of seven L.R.A. fighters who were hunting ivory to trade for weapons with Sudanese merchants and, allegedly, the military. Over a 15-day period, the insurgents had two shoot-outs with rangers. “The rules of engagement for the poachers are ‘shoot as soon as you see a ranger,’ ” said Naftali Honig, a 32-year-old New Yorker in charge of Garamba’s intelligence-gathering operation. “The rangers have to cope with that. Our job is not to monitor extinction; our job is to do something about it.”

Extinction is not theoretical in Garamba. It is both real and recent. At the start of this century, the park was home to the world’s last known wild population of northern white rhinos. By 2006, poachers had killed the last of them. The elephant population has also been decimated, falling from 22,700 in the mid-’70s to less than 1,200 today. The fate of the northern white rhino—the last two on earth are living under constant guard in central Kenya and are unable to reproduce—is a glimpse of the elephant’s future if the poachers are not stopped.

The tourniquet had stemmed the worst of the bleeding as Mararv pulled himself through the grass trying to find a radio signal. Just a few miles away, Molteno was already returning with five more rangers. Flying in fast, the pilot pointed out to the men which of the figures in the grass below were poachers and which rangers. Suddenly, his radio crackled to life and Molteno heard Mararv say he had been shot in the leg and was bleeding badly.

Molteno dropped the reinforcements to the north, hoping they could outflank the poachers. Then he took off again to find Mararv, who by now had reached a clearing where he was visible from the air. Molteno had no choice but to put his helicopter down into the middle of a still-fierce firefight. Kanisa and Dodo heard the thumping of the helicopter blades but were unable to signal their location. If they stood up, they knew, they risked being hit. Instead, they stayed low, out of sight of the poachers but also invisible to Molteno.

Mararv threw his rifle into the helicopter, then hauled himself in, wincing in pain as the mangled ends of his thigh bone crunched together. Molteno, meanwhile, had climbed out of his pilot’s seat and was taking shots at the poachers, all the while scanning the area for the wounded rangers. A bullet flew in through the open pilot’s door, whistled past his chest and left a neat hole in the opposite window. Incoming fire continued to crack over Mararv’s prone, bloodied body. Molteno, fearing for the chopper’s safety—and realizing Mararv might be bleeding to death—decided to return to headquarters, 15 miles away, to retrieve a third team of rangers and seek medical attention for Mararv.

Another five-man Congolese ranger team was armed and ready to go as soon as the helicopter landed. Mararv was lifted out and taken to a medic, who stuffed his wound with hemostatic gauze and gave him a painkilling fentanyl lollipop to suck. It was only after the arrival of the third squad of rangers that the battle finally ended, nearly two hours after it had begun. The poachers escaped, without the tusks, having abandoned much of their gear and leaving a trail of blood through the grass. Kanisa, Ndingba, and another wounded ranger, Rigobert Anigobe Bagale, were lifted into Molteno’s helicopter. Mararv was flown to a hospital in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, where there was a vascular surgeon who could tend to his leg.

It was not until the next morning, when Mararv awoke from a ketamine-induced sleep, that he learned both Ndingba and Bagale had died from their wounds. The same morning, Matikuli’s body was found hidden in the long grass. It had been one of the deadliest days in Garamba’s history.

Park rangers everywhere would rather concentrate on conservation, preserving habitats, and guiding visitors. But in Garamba, the demands are different. “To be able to fight the poachers, first you have to have training,” said Mambo Marindo, a quick-to-smile ranger in his 40s who has spent half his life patrolling Garamba. “But after training you need the equipment,” he said, gesturing toward a nearby collection of refurbished shipping containers that serve as the park armory, where aging AK-47s are stored alongside grenade launchers and boxes of ammunition. “It’s the same for the poachers and for us: We are planning how to attack, and they are also planning.”

After the April 2016 shoot-out, the London-based Endangered Species Protection Agency brought in a tough and wiry former special operations soldier named Mark Billingham to battle-train Garamba’s rangers. He drove the rangers on long, quick marches with their assigned “mentors” (all former British paratroopers or French Foreign Legion), led them through live-fire exercises, and accompanied them in overnight bivouacs in the equatorial rain. “The rangers need to look the part and act the part so these fuckers don’t come in here,” said Billingham, taking a break from the afternoon torpor on the porch of his riverside cottage in a grove of almond and bushwillow trees. “It’s a conflict out there. They’re fighting a rebel war.”

Shortly before dawn one morning, a few days after I arrived, a group of 21 rangers waited, each carrying a rucksack heavy with 45 pounds of sand, as Billingham and the other trainers arrived in a battered Toyota pickup for a five-mile march through the morning mist. After breakfast, they fired off magazine after magazine of bullets as they practiced frontal assaults on poaching gangs. Later in the week, they stayed out all night with their trainers, lying on a slippery mud bank in the unrelenting rain to launch a live-fire dawn raid on a fictitious poachers’ camp.

The April 2016 incident was “a wake-up call,” said John Barrett, a former British paratrooper in his 50s who was recently appointed Garamba’s general manager. “Poaching and the insecurity in the region has created a unique set of conditions that routine anti-poaching setups aren’t man enough for,” he said. Billingham and his colleagues “provide muscle.”

African Parks, the South Africa–based nonprofit conservation organization that runs Garamba (in partnership with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, a government body), has ramped up its assistance as well. The budget for the park has tripled to $10 million, much of it funded by the U.S. and European Union. “We were losing,” said the group’s co-founder and CEO, Peter Fearnhead. “The forces we are up against in Garamba are not poachers. They are highly militarized groups that happen to be killing elephants as a way of funding their war machines.” Dieudonné Kanisa believes the poachers who shot Mararv and the others belonged to the South Sudanese military.

Garamba’s intelligence operation has been expanded with money donated by the Elephant Crisis Fund, an initiative seeded and supported by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The plan, according to Barrett, is to bring in sniffer and attack dogs and to increase the ranger force. Garamba has already increased the force by nearly 25 percent in the past year, which helped the park halve the number of elephants poached in 2017. This will likely help alleviate some of the stress that comes with being on a constant war footing. There are multiple armed contacts with poachers every year, and the regular battles in which friends are killed or wounded take their toll. Barrett knows from experience what war can do to the minds of soldiers and said Garamba is no different: “I can see a bit of PTSD here, and I don’t think it’s surprising,” he said.

“I’ve been in a lot of firefights,” said Kanisa, a solemn man in his early 30s. “A lot.” After a pause, Kanisa spots a handmade Congolese harp resting against a wall. Without a word, he tunes the instrument carefully, his head cocked to one side, and smiles as the notes reverberate. Like many of the Garamba rangers, Kanisa comes from Faradje, 15 miles from headquarters, where there are few options for making a living. He has three children under the age of nine, and he said in the fall of 2016 that his $250 monthly salary allowed him to feed them and send them to school. But to risk your life to protect an animal or a park requires a degree of missionary zeal. “It is God’s plan,” said Kanisa. “When we take the decision to carry a gun in the park, we swear an oath. We have to protect the wildlife for our children, even our grandchildren.”

After the ambush, as the tusks left behind by the poachers were locked up in storage at park headquarters, Mararv underwent three surgeries. For a time, he feared he might lose the leg to infection. After spending a month convalescing, he returned to Garamba. I asked him if he regrets confronting the poachers. “We’re sitting with the result in hand,” he said. “Clearly it was the wrong decision. As soon as somebody gets killed, it’s always the wrong decision, but you don’t have too much of a choice.” The alternative is to let the poachers go about their business, in which case Garamba is lost.

Dodo, the ranger who likely saved Mararv’s life with a tourniquet, likewise thinks the choice to defend Garamba is simple. “Don’t ask why I protect this animal that God put here,” he said. “Ask the poachers why they seek to kill them.”