Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
GARAMBA NATIONAL PARK, Congo — The park rangers, armed with AK-47s and swapping combat stories, suddenly fell quiet. The driver pulled off the dusty, red road and plunged into the savannah, plowing through tan grass tall enough to envelop our Land Cruiser.
The rangers grew vigilant, heads swiveling, guns locked and loaded, as we drew closer to our final destination: a campsite recently vacated by members of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Our mission: to document how the LRA — now on the run, its numbers having dwindled to a few hundred fighters — has turned to elephant poaching to survive.
We were visiting Garamba National Park, near the village of Nagero, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a place that researchers have known for some time is used as an LRA hiding place in central Africa. Garamba is a special place, best known as the final refuge of the last of the wild northern white rhinos, a species last spotted there in 2007. It also provides habitat for elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos, leopards, and lions. Unfortunately, like much of the DRC itself, the park also happens to be barely under the control of authorities: just 130 rangers, employed by the international NGO African Parks, patrol an area of the bush approximately the size of Connecticut. They are outnumbered and often outgunned by the LRA. Ugandan forces, which have been deployed to combat the group, don't have access to DRC territory, while the Congolese Army, or FARDC, is often unpaid, unfed, and undisciplined, and has shown little ability to pursue the group. The LRA act as if they "own the park," according to park manager Luis Arranz. "They know the park better than we do."
From their camps in Garamba,the LRA preys on nearby villages, pillaging food and supplies, and kidnapping boys and girls for use as sex slaves or child soldiers. Every month, LRA fighters rob and abduct bicyclists or motorcyclists carting cases of beer, or sacks of flour and beans, from Nagero to the market in Dungu. FARDC soldiers inhabiting grass huts at a checkpoint have experimented with placing "scarecrows" — stick figures clad in army fatigues and helmets, with car sideview mirrors for heads — alongside foxholes to dissuade or distract LRA fighters. Of course, battle-hardened rebels who have roamed the jungle for decades are not so easily fooled.
But reports of elephant poaching are new — rumors of Garamba Park elephants being killed by the LRA only surfaced in mid-2012. LRA escapees told rangers that the orders to kill elephants came directly from Joseph Kony himself. Park rangers sent to monitor a herd of elephants in June 2012 were fired on as they approached the area by people shouting in Acholi, a language spoken in northern Uganda, where the LRA originated. When rangers returned to the scene the next day, they found bags of elephant meat, as well as carcasses with the tusks missing.
The Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project launched a fact-finding mission in January 2013, sending us to Garamba Park to find out more about the involvement of the LRA in poaching elephants. The report we produced, "Kony's Ivory: How Elephant Poaching in Congo Helps Support the Lord's Resistance Army," has been the first to confirm, through eyewitness interviews, that the LRA is in fact supplementing its usual pillaging through trading ivory tusks for food, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. It was on this mission that we visited the former LRA camp, and interviewed some of those who'd gotten an up-close look at the LRA's role in the illicit ivory business.
Photo: Elephants in Garamba National Park, Congo (African Park)