Monday, September 10, 2012

Who's Killing the Elephants in Africa? And Why?

Elephant ivory poaching is on an alarming rise throughout Africa and the elephants' opponents certainly aren't playing fair (not that they ever have). But now they're using techniques that I find stomach-churning, to say the least. The new breed of elephant poachers are more aggressive, more determined, and certainly more brutal. They're also using a more military approach to their poaching activities. These modern-day poachers are heavily armed and apparently think nothing of taking human lives along with those of the elephants.

A case in point is the recent slaughter of twenty-two elephants in Garamba National Park in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park is situated between the lush forests of the Congo Basin and the Guinea-Sudano savannas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. It contains four of the largest land mammals: both the African forest elephant and African bush elephant (and hybrids of both subspecies), the last remaining population of the rare northern white rhinoceros, the Gongolese giraffe, and the hippopotamus. The park is home to many endangered species and its location makes it ideal for its inhabitants because within the park one can find gallery forest (forest that forms along rivers or wetlands), forest clumps (sections of forest with closely situated trees), as well as marshland and both densely wooded and treeless savannas.  Garamba National Park, considered to be one of Africa's most gorgeous parks with its spectacular location, unique ecological formations, and variety of wildlife used to be home to approximately 20,000 elephants; now the numbers have dwindled to a little over 2,000.

This incredible national park was home to the twenty-two slaughtered elephants, any of them were very young. What was particularly interesting (and horrifying) was that the dead elephants were all killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. The elephant carcasses were discovered by park rangers, who also noted that there were no human prints leading away from the dead animals. Historically, ivory poachers kill their prey on foot, and often carve out hunks of meat to eat on their long walk home. The elephants died standing in a circular formation facing outward, with the young calves in the middle for protection.

What was later discover is even more disturbing. Interpol is now investigating the mass elephant slaughter with efforts underway to ascertain if DNA samples taken from the dead elephants match that of a large amount of tusks seized at a Ugandan airport (marked "household goods"). New evidence has also come to light about the method of the poachers' execution of the elephants. It's now believed that the elephants were shot from a helicopter using a sniper. 

An Mi-17 military helicopter was photographed flying unusually low over the park in April and the conservation group responsible for the park's management were able to successfully trace the helicopter's registration to the Ugandan military. It has become widely believes that The Lord's Resistance Army, Darfur's janjaweed, and the Shabab have turned to ivory poaching as a mean to finance their various causes.

The New York Times  recently covered the ivory poaching in a September 3, 2012 article which states:

In 2010, Ugandan soldiers, searching for Mr. 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 Mr. Hormats, the State Department official. “This is organized crime.”
The same NYTimes article explained the militaristic actions of the poachers as well as those behind them:

Garamba National Park is a big, beautiful sheet of green, 1,900 square miles, tucked in the northeastern corner of Congo. Picture a sea of chest-high elephant grass, swirling brown rivers, ribbons of papyrus and the occasional black-and-white secretary bird swooping elegantly through rose-colored skies. Founded in 1938, Garamba is widely considered one of Africa’s most stunning parks, a naturalist’s dream. 
But today, it is a battlefield, with an arms race playing out across the savanna. Every morning, platoons of Garamba’s 140 wildlife rangers suit up with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Luis Arranz, the park manager, wants to get surveillance drones, and the nonprofit organization that runs the park is considering buying night-vision goggles, flak jackets and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns. 
“We don’t negotiate, we don’t give any warning, we shoot first,” said Mr. Onyango, the chief ranger, who worked as a game warden in Kenya for more than 20 years. He rose to a high rank but lost his job after a poaching suspect died in his custody after being whipped.
“Out here, it’s not michezo,” Mr. Onyango said, using the Swahili word for games. 
In June, he heard a burst of gunfire. His rangers did a “leopard crawl” on their bellies for hours through the scratchy elephant grass until they spied poachers hacking several elephants. The instant his squad shot at the poachers, the whole bush came alive with crackling gunfire 
“They opened up on us with PKMs, AKs, G-3s, and FNs,” he said. “Most poachers are conservative with their ammo, but these guys were shooting like they were in Iraq. All of a sudden, we were outgunned and outnumbered.” 
Both of the rangers’ old belt-fed machine guns jammed that day, and they narrowly escaped (11 have been killed since 2008 and some of the rangers’ children have even been kidnapped). Later investigation showed that the poachers were members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal rebel outfit that circulates in central Africa, killing villagers and enslaving children. American Special Operations troops are helping several African armies hunt down the group’s phantom of a leader, Joseph Kony, who is believed to be hiding in a remote corner of the Central African Republic. 
Ivory may be Mr. Kony’s new lifeline. 
Several recent escapees from the L.R.A. said that Mr. Kony had ordered his fighters to kill as many elephants as possible and send him the tusks.
The elephant is recognized by experts to be a very intelligent, inquisitive, highly sensitive, and emotional animal. Their life span is similar to that of a human's. They mourn their dead and display exceptional cognitive abilities, many of which are still somewhat mysterious. And now ivory poaching is reaching even greater heights than of the 1980's.

If you're interested in helping the African elephant, please reach out to CITES (the international trade organization that governs endangered animals) and voice your concern.  Their website is here:

Another resource is Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants and Dame Daphne Sheldrick, whose Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi cares for orphaned young elephant until they can be returned to the wild.  The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust can be found here: Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Whether or not you're able to write an email, start a petition, foster a baby elephant, the main thing you can do is care

Elephant Matriarch, Masai Mara, August 2012

Elephant mother with her young calf, Masai Mara, August 2012

Elephant silhouetted by the African sunset, Masai Mara, August 2012

Animals Matter. Elephants Matter.


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