Garamba National Park rangers stand next to a poached elephant in this May 2012 photo. Credit: Nuria Ortega/African Parks Network, from the report
The incredibly lucrative wildlife trade fuels organized crime on every continent on Earth. But in central Africa, inflated ivory prices are fueling something even more sinister: militant groups like the Lord's Resistance Army run by Joseph Kony, 2012's most viral villain, are funding their insurgencies through the slaughter of elephants.
Poaching of African megafauna—elephants for ivory, and rhinos for horn—has been ramping up in the last decade, but in the last two years in particular both have skyrocketed. Last year came the revelation that ivory had become so lucrative that militant groups began to take over the poaching trade, with the same happening with rhinos. The Lord's Resistance Army, which is behind an absolutely atrocious war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), has long been presumed to be taking part, and thanks to a new report from the Enough Project, that has been confirmed.
According to the report, Kony himself has ordered his soldiers to kill elephants and harvest ivory, which is then traded for guns, munitions, food, and everything else it takes to run a brutal war campaign. In a January visit to Garamba National Park in the DRC, the authors write, "the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project documented evidence of LRA poaching operations through interviews with park rangers, LRA escapees, and recent senior defectors."
The headquarters of Garamba National Park. The top inset shows a truck covered in bullet holes; according to the report, around 150 LRA soldiers attacked the headquarters in 2009, killing 16. The bottom inset shows a destroyed storage facility. The LRA looting and burning of Garamba headquarters caused $2 million in damages. Inset photos: Jonathan Huston/Enough Project, from the report
If you've heard of Garamba before, it's possibly because it was home to the last few individuals of the northern white rhino subspecies. In 2003, the wild population stood at just 30, and poachers have long since finished them off. Left are elephants, who are being defended by small groups of rangers armed with everything from machine guns to RPGs. That might seem like a lot, but compared to the LRA, which has fought for decades in central Africa without being broken up, it's hardly a superior force. As the New York Times once said, ivory is Africa's newest conflict resource.
While it's the most notably criminal, the LRA is hardly the only militant group running the poaching trade, and it's decimating elephants. A stunning two-thirds of Africa's forest elephants were killed in the last decade, and in the Congo, rates may be even higher. From the report:
As a consequence, the United Nations estimates that there may have already been a 50 percent to 90 percent decrease in the elephant populations of the CAR and DRC. Park rangers in Garamba suspect that members of the Congolese, South Sudanese, Sudanese, and Ugandan armed forces, as well as state-sponsored militias including the Janjaweed from Darfur, are participating in killing the park’s elephants at an accelerating pace. The LRA’s involvement in the trade is particularly troubling since the resources it gains from ivory supports its continuing violence, undermining the international community’s efforts to dismantle the group.
This is important because, beyond the rangers who routinely are killed fighting traditional poachers, poaching is now sustaining militant groups with leaders like Kony, who's wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. International efforts to stop such insurgencies often focus on trying to financially strangle a group, which is less politically fraught than a military response. But with how expensive ivory has become—fueled by booming demand in Asia—now groups the LRA have new sources of cash in the dwindling stocks of wild elephants.
That means that elephant poaching isn't just an environmental crisis—it's also a humanitarian and national security problem. Matthew Scully, in a recent, excellent Atlantic piece, argues that President Obama needs to take a stand against poaching and follow it up with action, especially in future talks with China, which is the largest source of demand.
It's an argument I wholeheartedly agree with, and have made before: If Obama considers fighting militant groups in central Africa to be important—and his regular expansion of US special forces operations on the continent would suggest that's the case—then protecting elephants (and rhinos) is of strategic importance. Tracking down Kony in the jungles of central Africa has proved impossible so far. Cutting off his bank accounts is less difficult. But if he can continue using ivory as currency, that's never going to work.
There is change coming. The governing body of CITES, the international treaty regulating wildlife trade, recently threatened African ivory source countries with sanctions if they don't come up with credible plans for combating elephant poachers. But that can only go so far; when even Kenyan citizens are taking up arms to protect elephants, you have to realize that rangers are often underfunded, understaffed, and facing extremely violent, very experienced militias.
A Garamba ranger holding footwear found inside an LRA camp that was once worn by a captive. Photo: Enough Project/Jonathan Hutson, from the report
As the Enough Project report notes, the US government, and especially former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have pledged support to the issue. On the ground, better tracking and information technology could be a big boon to rangers, as tracking elephants and poachers in the vast wild regions of the DRC is an incredibly tall task. There are countless valuable and productive ways new funding could be spent to help wildlife rangers combat organized poachers.
But as long as organized military action against the LRA is off the table—it is for the foreseeable future—stopping poaching also means quelling demand. That means tracking down Kony's secretive ivory trade routes and shuttering them; it also means the much larger and much more important task of killing demand in Asia. Thailand took a nice step earlier this year by banning its domestic ivory trade, but only time will tell if that turns out to be anything more than lip service. And the biggest consumer, China, still has extremely lax rules about ivory trade and enough corruption to make enforcement useless.
Until demand is quelled—and really, there's no good reason anyone needs ivory in the 21st century—prices will remain high enough (think $1300+ per pound) for militants to rely on it for funding. At this point, we're faced with a choice: Watch Africa's dwindling elephant herds be violently cut down to fund war criminals, or take comprehensive action to stop the trade. The good news for elephants, if there is any at all, is that this new focus on them as a security issue will hopefully do more to spur action.