In the first week of September the international press was awash with a single story; game rangers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo had spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an alleged unauthorised flight in an area where poachers had killed 22 elephants and carried off their treasured tusks.
In the most quoted report of the incident, from the U.S. newspaper The New York Times, the UPDF was portrayed with suspicion. But if the alleged UPDF helicopter was spotted in April, The Independent on Sept.11 asked Army and UPDF Spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye, about the story that went viral five months later.
Col. Kulayigye said since the allegations were first made in way back in March, there has been no evidence to prove them.
He added: In fact the New York journalists referred to the story of elephant tusks as being related to that allegation which I found unscientific. I mean, individuals have been caught with drugs at the Airport, does it mean Uganda deals in drugs?
“The fact that the chopper said to have been over flying Garamba is sufficient evidence is being simplistic, because that is the route our aircrafts take to Nzara and Obbo.
“The UPDF is not in DRC so we could not have been the ones involved in the poaching. The best way forward is to ask the FARDC as to who killed the poor elephants.”
So why had the story received so much coverage in September? Partly, it is because the New York Times is one of most respected newspapers in the world and often carries the agenda of western governments whose attention is on the M23 rebellion in the DRC. That rebellion has sucked in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda governments, if not their armies.
Ugandan media has also been awash with stories on the plight of elephants since the Uganda Wildlife Authority confirmed the slaying by poachers of two elephants, including Baraka, a 40 year old male elephant believed to have been the oldest and most peaceful in Semliki wildlife reserve in western Uganda.
But at a press conference on Sept.11, the new Tourism Minister Maria Mutagamba, said the killing were not a sign that poaching in Uganda’s protected areas was on the increase. On the contrary, she said, a 2010 UWA large mammal census revealed that the elephant numbers for Queen Elizabeth National Park had increased from 400 in 1988 to 2,959 in 2010. The minister praised the UPDF for supporting the Uganda Tourism Police to combat poaching.
But in the New York Times story, large sections of which are reproduced verbatim in this article, the UPDF is accused of horrific crimes.
The story quoted Paul Onyango, a game ranger in Garamba, who said in his 30 years of fighting poachers, had never seen anything like the havoc allegedly unleashed by the UPDF; twenty-two dead elephants, including several very young ones, clumped together on the open savannah, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head.
Onyango said the strange way the elephant carcasses were found, clumped in circles, with the calves in the middle for protection, was yet another sign that a helicopter had corralled them together because elephants usually scatter at the first shot.
There were no tracks leading away, no sign that the poachers had stalked their prey from the ground. The tusks had been hacked away, but none of the meat — and subsistence poachers almost always carve themselves a little meat for the long walk home.
Several days later, in early April, the Garamba National Park guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an unauthorised flight, but they said, it abruptly turned around after being detected. Park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities now believe that the Ugandan military — one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in Africa — killed the 22 elephants from a helicopter and spirited away more than a million dollars’ worth of ivory.
“They were good shots, very good shots,” said Onyango, Garamba’s chief ranger. “They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything.”
Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter. Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarised.
Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.
African Parks, the South Africa-based conservation organisation that manages Garamba, has photographs of a military transport helicopter flying low over the park in April and said it had traced the chopper’s registration number to the Ugandan military.
Col.l Felix Kulayigye, a spokesman for the Ugandan military, acknowledged that the helicopter was one of their aircraft. But he said that the poaching allegation was a “baseless rumor” and that he knew “for sure” that Lord’s Resistance Army members were “well known” poachers in that area.
The United States has paid tens of millions of dollars in recent years for fuel and transport services for the Ugandan Army to hunt down Kony in central Africa, while training Congolese and South Sudanese to help. But the State Department said it had no evidence that the Ugandan military was responsible for the Garamba killings, nor knowledge that any of the African soldiers involved in the Kony hunt had engaged in poaching. It did not address the broader history of poaching by American-supported militaries.
In June, 36 tusks were seized at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Eighteen of the 22 elephants killed in Garamba in March were adults that had their ivory hacked out, which would usually mean 36 tusks. The little stubs of ivory on the dead calves had been left untouched.
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species passed a moratorium on the international commercial trade of African elephant ivory, except under a few rare circumstances. No one knows how many elephants are being poached each year, but many leading conservationists agree that “tens of thousands” is a safe number and that 2012 is likely to be worse than 2011.
The total elephant population in Africa is a bit of a mystery, too. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global conservation network, estimates from 472,269 to 689,671. But that is based on information from 2006. Poaching has dramatically increased since then, all across the continent.
Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the al-Shabab and Darfur’s Janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.
But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.
Congolese soldiers are often arrested for it. South Sudanese forces frequently battle wildlife rangers. Interpol, the international police network, is now helping to investigate the mass elephant killings in the Garamba park, trying to match DNA samples from the animals’ skulls to a large shipment of tusks, marked “household goods,” recently seized at a Ugandan airport.
Kony’s new lifeline
Several recent escapees from the LRA said that Kony had ordered his fighters to kill as many elephants as possible and send him the tusks.
“Kony wants ivory,” said a young woman who was kidnapped earlier this year near Garamba. “I heard the other rebels say it many times: ‘We need to get ivory and send it to Kony.”‘
Other recent escapees said that the group had killed at least 29 elephants since May, buying guns, ammunition and radios with the proceeds. Kony may be working with Sudanese ivory traders. One ivory retailer in Omdurman, Sudan, who openly sells ivory bracelets, prayer beads and carved tusks, said the Lord’s Resistance Army was one source of the ivory he saw.
“The LRA works in this, too; that’s how they buy their weapons,” the shopkeeper said matter-of-factly.
Several Sudanese ivory traders said the ivory from Congo and the Central African Republic moved overland across Sudan’s vast western desert region of Darfur and then up to Omdurman, all with the help of corrupt Sudanese officials. There is a well-known practice in Sudan called “buying time,” in which smugglers pay police officers and border guards for a specified amount of time to let a convoy of illegal goods slip through checkpoints.
But there are many routes. On Africa’s east coast, Kenya’s port city of Mombasa is a major trans-shipment centre. A relatively small percentage of containers in Mombasa is inspected, and ivory has been concealed in shipments of everything from avocados to anchovies.
On the west coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, “there is a relatively recent phenomenon of well-armed, sophisticated poachers who load their ivory onto Chinese fishing ships,” one senior American official said.
Chinese officials declined to discuss any aspect of the ivory trade, with one representative of the Forestry Ministry, which handles ivory issues, saying, “This is a very sensitive topic right now.”
Several Sudanese ivory traders and Western officials said that the infamous Janjaweed militias of Darfur were also major poachers. Large groups of Janjaweed — the word means “horseback raider” — were blamed for killing thousands of civilians in the early 2000s, when Darfur erupted in ethnic conflict. International law enforcement officials say that horseback raiders from Darfur wiped out thousands of elephants in central Africa in the 1980s.
Now they suspect that hundreds of Janjaweed militiamen rode more than 900 kilometres from Sudan and were the ones who slaughtered at least 300 elephants in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon in January.
In 2010, Ugandan soldiers, searching for Kony in the forests of the Central African Republic, ran into a Janjaweed ivory caravan. “These guys had 400 men, pack mules, a major camp, lots of weapons,” a Western official said. A battle erupted and more than 10 Ugandans were killed.
“It just shows you the power of poaching, how much money you can make stacking up the game,” the official said.
Businessmen are clearly bankrolling these enormous ivory expeditions, both feeding off and fueling conflict, Western officials and researchers say.
“This is not just freelance stuff,” said Hormats, the State Department official. “This is organised crime”
Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that the Janjaweed sweeping across central Africa on ambitious elephant hunts “goes much deeper than a bunch of guys coming in on horses. It has to do with insecurity and lawlessness.”
That profit is not lost on government soldiers in central Africa, who often get paid as little as US$100 a month, if they get paid at all.
In Garamba, the park rangers have arrested many Congolese government soldiers, including some caught with tusks, slabs of elephant meat and the red berets often worn by the elite presidential guard.
“An element of our army is involved,” acknowledged Maj. Jean-Pierrot Mulaku, a Congolese military prosecutor. “It’s easy money.”
According to a report written in 2010 by John Hart, an American scientist and one of the top elephant researchers in Congo, the “Congolese military are implicated in almost all elephant poaching,” making the military “the main perpetrator of illegal elephant killing in DRC.”
The Garamba rangers and a Congolese government intelligence officer said that they also routinely battled soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the military of South Sudan. A South Sudanese military spokesman denied that, saying that the soldiers “didn’t have time” for poaching.
In May, the Garamba rangers said they had opened fire on four South Sudanese soldiers who had poached six elephant tusks. The rangers said they killed one soldier, though they did not seem to think too much about it.
“I’ve killed too many people to count,” said Alexi Tamoasi, a veteran ranger.
The vast majority of the illegal ivory — experts say as much as 70 per cent — is flowing to China, and though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many of them been able to afford it. China’s economic boom has created a vast middle class, pushing the price of ivory to a stratospheric US$1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing.
High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving, and essentially unregulated, market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs, along with helpful tips on how to smuggle them (wrap the ivory in tinfoil, says one website, to throw off X-ray machines).
Last year, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. And there is growing evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas where Chinese construction workers are building roads.
“China is the epicentre of demand,” said Robert Hormats, a senior official in the US State Department. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”
He said Hillary Clinton, who condemned conflict minerals from Congo a few years ago, was pushing the ivory issue with the Chinese “at the highest levels”.
The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries. In Tanzania, impoverished villagers are poisoning pumpkins and rolling them into the road for elephants to eat. In Gabon, subsistence hunters deep in the rain forest are being enlisted to kill elephants and hand over the tusks, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.
4000 elephants killed
Last year, poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. And 2011 broke the record for the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide, at 38.8 tons (equaling the tusks from more than 4000 dead elephants).
Law enforcement officials say the sharp increase in large seizures is a clear sign that organised crime has slipped into the ivory underworld, because only a well-oiled criminal machine — with the help of corrupt officials — could move hundreds of pounds of tusks thousands of miles across the globe, often using specially made shipping containers with secret compartments.
The smugglers are “Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates,” said Tom Milliken, director of the Elephant Trade Information System, an international ivory monitoring project, and “highly adaptive to law enforcement interventions, constantly changing trade routes and modus operandi.”
Conservationists say the mass kill-offs taking place across Africa may be as bad as, or worse than, those in the 1980s, when poachers killed more than half of Africa’s elephants before an international ban on the commercial ivory trade was put in place.
“We’re experiencing what is likely to be the greatest percentage loss of elephants in history,” said Richard G Ruggiero, an official with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some experts say the survival of the species is at stake, especially when many members of the African security services entrusted with protecting the animals are currently killing them.