How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa

Bryan Christy, How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa. National Geographic, 12 August 2015. “…[T]he African elephant is under siege. A booming Chinese middle class with an insatiable taste for ivory, crippling poverty in Africa, weak and corrupt law enforcement, and more ways than ever to kill an elephant have created a perfect storm. The result: Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, more than 100,000 between 2010 and 2012, and the pace of killing is not slowing. Most illegal ivory goes to China, where a pair of ivory chopsticks can bring more than a thousand dollars and carved tusks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Update: Paul Steyn, African Elephant Numbers Plummet 30 Percent, Landmark Survey Finds. National Geographic, 31 August 2016. “An unprecedented census gives a sobering baseline for managing what’s left of Africa’s elephants.” The finding of the Great Elephant Census, a continent-wide wildlife survey, is worrying: “Africa now has 352,271 savanna elephants left in 93 percent of the species’ range. The aerial survey covered 18 African countries. In 15 of those, where information on previous populations existed, 144,000 elephants were lost to ivory poaching and habitat destruction in less than a decade. The current yearly loss—overwhelmingly from poaching—is estimated at 8 percent. That’s about 27,000 elephants slaughtered year after year…. The census was funded by Microsoft founder Paul G. Allen and took just under three years to complete. Led by the nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, which is based in Botswana, the survey involved a team of 90 scientists, six NGOs, and two advisory partners: the Kenya-based conservation organization Save the Elephants and the African Elephant Specialist Group, made up of experts who focus on the conservation and management of African elephants.”

Update: Edward Wong and Jeffrey Gettleman, China Bans Its Ivory Trade, Moving Against Elephant Poaching. The New York Times, 30 December 2016. China announced on Friday that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa.”

East Africa is now ground zero for much of the poaching. In June the Tanzanian government announced that the country has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the past five years, down from 110,000 to fewer than 44,000. During the same period, neighboring Mozambique is reported to have lost 48 percent of its elephants. Locals, including poor villagers and unpaid park rangers, are killing elephants for cash—a risk they’re willing to take because even if they’re caught, the penalties are often negligible. But in central Africa, as I learned firsthand, something more sinister is driving the killing: Militias and terrorist groups funded in part by ivory are poaching elephants, often outside their home countries, and even hiding inside national parks. They’re looting communities, enslaving people, and killing park rangers who get in their way.

South Sudan. The Central African Republic (CAR). The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sudan. Chad. Five of the world’s least stable nations, as ranked by the Washington, D.C.-based organization the Fund for Peace, are home to people who travel to other countries to kill elephants. Year after year, the path to many of the biggest, most horrific elephant killings traces back to Sudan, which has no elephants left but gives comfort to foreign-born poacher-terrorists and is home to the janjaweed and other Sudanese cross-continental marauders.

Park rangers are often the only forces going up against the killers. Outnumbered and ill equipped, they’re manning the front line in a violent battle that affects us all….

Garamba National Park, in the northeast corner of the DRC and on the border with South Sudan, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, internationally famous for its elephants and its boundless ocean of green. But when I ask a gathering of children and elders in the village of Kpaika, about 30 miles from the park’s western border, how many of them have visited Garamba, no one raises a hand. When I ask, “How many of you have been kidnapped by the LRA?”—I understand why.

Father Ernest Sugule, who ministers to the village, tells me that many children in his diocese have seen family members killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, the Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted terrorists. Sugule is the founder of a group that provides assistance to victims of Kony’s army. “I’ve met more than a thousand children who have been abducted,” he says as we talk inside his church in the nearby town of Dungu. “When they’re abducted, they’re very young, and they’re forced to do horrible things. Most of these children are very, very traumatized when they come back home.” They have nightmares, Sugule continues. They have flashbacks. Their own families are afraid that they’re devils, or forever soldiers, who might kill them in the night. It is assumed that the girls were raped, so it’s difficult for them to find husbands….

Since the 1980s, and beginning in Uganda, Kony’s minions are alleged to have killed tens of thousands of people, slicing the lips, ears, and breasts off women, raping children and women, chopping off the feet of those caught riding bicycles, and kidnapping young boys to create an army of child soldiers who themselves grow into killers.

In 1994 Kony left Uganda and took his murderous gang on the road. He went first to Sudan, initiating a pattern of border-hopping that continues to make him difficult to track….

When north and south Sudan signed a peace agreement in 2005, Kony lost his Sudanese host. In March 2006 he fled for the DRC and set up camp in Garamba National Park, then home to some 4,000 elephants. From Garamba, Kony signaled his desire for peace with Uganda, sending emissaries to neutral Juba, in southern Sudan, to negotiate with Ugandan officials while he and his men lived unmolested in and around the park, protected by a cease-fire agreement. His army farmed vegetables. Kony even invited foreign press into his camp for interviews. Meanwhile, flouting the cease-fire, his men crossed into CAR, where they kidnapped hundreds of children and made sex slaves of women they brought back to the park….

…[Tanzania] is plagued by perhaps the worst elephant poaching in Africa, and corruption is rife. In 2013, Khamis Kagasheki, then Tanzania’s minister of natural resources and tourism, declared that the illegal ivory trade “involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network,” and he accused four members of Tanzania’s Parliament of being involved in it….

The recent death toll of elephants in Garamba has been staggering, even by central African standards. Poachers killed at least 132 last year [2014], and as of this June, rangers had discovered another 42 carcasses with bullet holes, more than 30 attributed to a single Sudanese poaching expedition—a combined loss amounting to more than 10 percent of the park’s entire population of elephants, estimated now to be no more than about 1,500.

From March 2014 to March 2015, Garamba’s rangers recorded 31 contacts with armed poachers, more than half of whom were with groups traveling south from the direction of South Sudan and Sudan….

All of central Africa is a hand grenade, its pin pulled by a history of resource exploitation from abroad, dictatorships, and poverty….

Zakouma National Park has lost nearly 90 percent of its elephants since 2002. Most—up to 3,000—were poached from 2005 to 2008. During those years Sudanese poachers arrived in groups of more than a dozen armed men, camping inside the park for months at a time, killing, in one instance, 64 elephants in a single hunt. When in 2008 the Wildlife Conservation Society introduced a surveillance airplane, poaching declined, but Sudanese marauders adapted, returning in hit squads of under six men, who infiltrated from outside the park on one-day hunts. They killed fewer elephants per hunt but were much harder to track and stop. Now, says the park’s director, Rian Labuschagne, of African Parks, “my biggest fear is that they’ll start coming in pairs.”…

As Somalia is to piracy, Sudan has become to elephant poaching. In 2012 as many as a hundred Sudanese and Chadian poachers on horseback rode across central Africa into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park. They set up camp and in a four-month rampage killed up to 650 elephants….

That members of the Sudanese military trade arms for ivory with the LRA raises questions about the highest levels of Sudan’s government. In 2009 [President Omar al-] Bashir became the world’s first sitting head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In presenting that case, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo underscored Bashir’s control of the groups said to be behind Sudan’s ivory trafficking: “He used the army, he enrolled the Militia/Janjaweed. They all report to him, they all obey him. His control is absolute.”…

Despite Sudan’s role as a safe haven for groups known to traffic ivory, such as the LRA, janjaweed, and other poaching gangs, the country has drawn limited official attention as a poaching state. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty organization that governs international trade in ivory—and its continuing ban—has identified eight countries “of primary concern” when it comes to international ivory trafficking: China, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Tanzania, and Vietnam. Eight more are considered of secondary concern: Cameroon, Congo, the DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Three more are classified as of “importance to watch”: Angola, Cambodia, and Laos.

Sudan is not on these lists, even though Sudanese poachers are a primary reason elephants are killed in several of the countries listed by CITES as of primary or secondary concern. Sudan is also a well-documented supplier of ivory to Egypt and is the recipient of substantial Chinese infrastructure investment, which typically comes with Chinese workers, a source of ivory smuggling in many parts of Africa. Ivory shops in Khartoum advertise in English and Chinese as well as Arabic. According to CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon, Sudan does not appear on these lists because CITES sets priorities based mainly on ivory seizures, and there have been few ivory seizures linked to Sudan in recent years. Which raises the question: If ivory is poached by Sudanese, where is it going?

See also: Bryan Christy, Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship. National Geographic, October 2012. “Thousands of elephants die each year so that their tusks can be carved into religious objects.”