African Parks has intensified its anti-poaching efforts in eastern DRC to counter the poaching onslaught that has beset Garamba National Park in the past two months. A total of 68 elephants have been poached since mid-April, representing about 4% of the total population.
In mid-May, African Parks reported that 33 elephants had been killed in the five weeks prior, indicating a concerted attack on the park’s elephant population. Despite intensified anti-poaching efforts since then, the total has risen to 68 elephants in the past two months, at least nine of them shot from a helicopter. On one occasion hand grenades were used against the Park’s rangers by Sudanese poachers. For the first time the brains of elephants have also been removed, together with tusks and genitals.
African Parks’ investigations have revealed that the poaching is emanating from four different sources: Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgents, armed groups from South Sudan, poachers operating from a helicopter, and renegade members of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC).
In the past few weeks Garamba’s anti-poaching teams have exchanged fire with several of these groups and five poachers have been killed. “The situation is extremely serious,” said Garamba park manager Jean-Marc Froment. “The Park is under attack on all fronts.”
Froment said that much of the poaching was being conducted by a new wave of LRA insurgents emanating from the thickly-forested Azande Domaine de Chasse (hunting zone) to the west of the park. Unlike previous encounters with the LRA, in which their weapons were old and ammunition limited, these groups have brand new weapons and ample supplies of ammunition.
The second threat comes from South Sudanese poachers, some of them wearing military uniforms, entering the park from the north-east. “In one encounter, hand-grenades were used against our anti-poaching team in an exchange of fire that last 45 minutes,” said Froment.
The third threat is from poachers using an unidentified helicopter. Nine of the recently poached elephants had bullet wounds to the top of their heads and back and had been shot with military precision. In two recent attacks by helicopter, the tusks were removed with chainsaws and the brains and genitals were also targeted. These attacks are similar to a military-style helicopter attack two years ago that left 23 elephants dead in Garamba.
The escalated counter-poaching measures being rolled out by African Parks and The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) include:
• Collaboration with the regional military task force, which is being supported by AFRICOM (The United States Africa Command).
• The establishment of forward operating bases at strategic points in the park and the manning of choke points to close down known poaching access routes.
• The immediate construction of new roads, bridges and pontoon crossings across the park in order to facilitate the broader deployment of anti-poaching teams.
• The extension of the park’s airstrip network and the intensification of aerial surveillance by the park’s two aircraft.
• Bullet-proof reinforcement of trucks used to transport the anti-poaching teams as well as the park’s aircraft.
• The extension of the current limited communications network throughout the park
In addition, a helicopter is being urgently sought for the rapid deployment of anti-poaching units in and around the park.
Last year, in anticipation of an escalation in poaching, African Parks invested heavily in anti-poaching equipment, communications systems, training and informer networks at Garamba, as well as training a specialised Rapid Response Unit to respond swiftly to severe poaching threats.
“The current poaching crisis at Garamba, involving the use of heavy weapons and hand grenades against the park’s anti-poaching teams, now necessities an even more intensive anti-poaching effort,” said African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead. “This surge of poaching is unparalleled in the eight years that we have managed Garamba alongside ICCN,” said Fearnhead. “Garamba contains the largest remaining elephant population across this entire region of Africa and has therefore become a major poaching target. We do not underestimate the danger facing our rangers on the ground, but we are also determined to take whatever measure we need to protect our elephants.”
African Parks has managed Garamba in partnership with the DRC’s national park authority, ICCN, since 2005.