Sunday, May 8, 2016

John Vidal in Nairobi - On the frontline of Africa’s wildlife wars

Across central Africa, militias have turned the savannah into killing fields

Brigadier Venant Mumbere Muvesevese, a 35-year-old father of four, became the 150th ranger in the last 10 years to be killed protecting lowland gorillas, elephants and other wildlife in Virunga national park last month. He and his young Congolese colleague, Fidèle Mulonga Mulegalega, were surrounded by local militia, captured and then summarily executed.

For Emmanuel de Mérode, the Belgian head of Virunga, himself shot and wounded by militia in 2014, the two killings in Africa’s oldest park, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were yet another atrocity in the brutal wildlife wars raging through southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, Congo and parts of Uganda, Chad and Tanzania.

“These two rangers were killed in situations that may amount to war crimes in any other conflict,” he said. “We cannot sustain these kind of losses in what is still the most dangerous conservation job in the world.”

Virunga has lost five rangers so far this year. Speaking to the Observer from the park’s fortified HQ in Goma, De Mérode said security had got worse in recent months. “We lost people in January, too. We have a state of armed conflict, a low-intensity war being fought over the exploitation of natural resources in the park,” he said. “For the rangers it is not impossible to work, but it is now very dangerous. We are training 100 new rangers now and there will be 120 more next year. We are still very committed and optimistic.”

The battle for central Africa’s wildlife has exploded as heavily armed militia target elephants and rhino and gun down anyone trying to protect them. Three rangers were killed and two wounded in a shootout in the vast Garamba national park in DRC last week; others were killed in Kahuzi-Biéga park near the city of Bukavu in March; in northern Tanzania, poachers killed British helicopter pilot Roger Gowerin January.

The five rangers shot in Garamba were working for African Parks, a Johannesburg-based nonprofit conservation group that sends South African and other military officials to train rangers in the 10 wildlife parks it manages on behalf of governments.

According to Peter Fearnhead, African Parks director, Garamba is now the heart of the illegal African wildlife trade. Its 300-odd armed guards combat helicopters and drones and find poachers from as far afield as the Central African Republic, Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. “We have lost probably 30 people in Garamba alone in seven years. Hundreds of elephants are killed every year. This is the last stronghold of elephant and giraffe in Congo, but probably the toughest park in Africa. Every elephant poached can turn into a firefight,” said Fearnhead. “Life for a wildlife ranger is now very dangerous in some countries, probably more risky than being in a national army.”

He said that rangers often found themselves pitted againstformer combatants from the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and former Janjaweed members from Sudan. “Last week we buried three people but morale is as strong as ever. When [the rangers] were told that their colleagues had been shot, they all wanted to respond. The poachers use automatic weapons, even grenades. Being a ranger is not about chasing people through the bush and arresting them. It’s war. The rangers put their lives on the line every day, and are under real siege in Garamba. We are not militia but it requires a militaristic response to defend wildlife. [Groups of militia] are now bidding for contracts to get tons of ivory. It’s big business with groups of armed people crossing multiple borders. These people have phenomenal bush skills, with AK-47s. They shoot for the head. They are a total law unto themselves.”

There have been more than 30 shootouts, five deaths, several woundings and 43 elephants killed in the last four months in Garamba. Last weekend, as President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya was preparing to set fire to thousands of elephant tusks together worth $100m in Nairobi, Erik Mararv, the Swedish manager of the DRC park, was in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.

The masterminds of the poaching and human killings in these parks are powerful networks of criminals, militias, state armies and corrupt politicians from half a dozen fragile or failing central African countries. New players, say security analysts, have expanded into the lucrative, illegal wildlife trade in the last decade. Together, they have turned the savannahs of central Africa into killing fields and are using the estimated $20bn raised each year from the sale of tusks and rhino horn to fund war, terrorism and crime.

The scale of the resulting slaughter has shocked conservationists, who until 10 years ago prided themselves on their rangers’ bushcraft and tracking skills. In some places now they find themselves thrust on to the frontline of an insurgency with next to no resources to resist professional soldiers. “Incidents of large-scale poaching on an industrial scale are now being reported,” revealed a recent study by the Chatham House thinktank in London. “In one week, poachers linked to the Janjaweed from Sudan and Chad allegedly killed more than 86 elephants, using automatic weapons. Poaching on such a scale is not driven by opportunism or subsistence imperatives, but by armed non-state actors and organised groups with wider links.”

When dozens of heavily armed men on horseback rode into Bouba Njida park in Cameroon in 2012, the four rangers on bicycles armed with old guns did not stand a chance. More than 350 animals were killed in a few hours. No poachers were captured, but they cut pieces from the ears of the elephants they had killed – an indication that they came from Sudan, more than 600 miles away. A 2014 study for US conservation group Born Free, by US security analysts C4ADS, said ivory was now the preferred currency for militants and rebels to buy weapons and to bankroll conflict in central Africa... Read more: