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Tusk Wars: Inside the LRA and the Bloody Business of Ivory

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Tusk Wars: Inside the LRA and the Bloody Business of Ivory

Posted by Ledio Cakaj on October 26, 2015

Tusk Wars: Inside the LRA and the Bloody Business of Ivory

Executive Summary 

New field research from the Enough Project shows that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is weakened to an unprecedented point, counting only 120 armed fighters in its ranks, scattered across three countries in central Africa. Despite its weakened state, the LRA continues to pose a threat to local populations in Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and in South Sudan, with 150 recorded attacks and 500 abductions of civilians for the first eight months of 2015 and 200,000 people displaced.

Based on new interviews with recent LRA defectors, LRA founder and leader Joseph Kony was based in the Sudan-controlled enclave of Kafia Kingi as of May 2015, an area he has rarely moved from since 2011. His initial base in 2011 was reportedly 10 miles from the Sudan Armed Forces garrison in Dafak, South Darfur, and his last known location in May 2015 was at the foot of Mount Toussoro at the Kafia Kingi-CAR border. According to recent LRA defectors, Kony is unlikely to move deeper into South Darfur, as that area is more populated and insecure, and he would be much more likely to be spotted. There is a slight possibility that Sudanese army troops are unaware of the exact whereabouts of Kony himself, but LRA defectors have consistently claimed that the local Sudanese military personnel has knowledge of the presence of LRA groups in Kafia Kingi, a stark contrast to the Government of Sudan’s persistent denials of LRA presence in its territory.

Kony has gradually lost some control over his troops, who are increasingly likely to leave the ranks or disobey his orders. Nine of Kony’s personal bodyguards made an attempt on his life in mid-2015 – the first time that has ever occurred. African Union forces and U.S. advisors have also made communications within the LRA very difficult, with Kony out of touch with some of his commanders for months or even years at a time. U.S.-led defection campaigns are having some success, as recently escaped LRA fighters express they trust U.S. advisors more than they do the A.U. forces, and seven recent defectors walked for a month attempting to access a U.S. base in CAR. On October 23, 2015, President Obama reauthorized the U.S. support mission for an additional year.

Despite the successes of the A.U.-U.S. counter-LRA mission, Kony has continued to traffic ivory, secured by fighters in DRC’s Garamba National Park. New field research by the Enough Project provides new details about the traffic of ivory from DRC into Kafia Kingi, and the transaction between the LRA and Sudanese merchants. In Enough Project staff interviews conducted earlier in 2015, ex-LRA combatants described trading ivory directly with Sudan Armed Forces officers. Under direct orders from Kony, LRA commanders, in particular his two oldest sons, Salim and Ali, barter the ivory with merchants from the South Darfur town of Songo, in exchange for food, uniforms, and ammunition. One LRA group is based in DRC’s Garamba National Park (GNP), where it poaches elephants and secures the ivory. Another group, led by a young man called Owila, then transports the ivory from northeastern DRC to Kafia Kingi through CAR. The tusks are likely trafficked to Nyala, South Darfur, and on to Khartoum for export abroad, primarily to Asia.

Recent defectors from Kony’s group have emerged with large amounts of fresh ammunition that was obtained by trafficking ivory. The independent research organization C4ADS conducted headstamp analysis on spent rounds found by rangers in Garamba National Park following recent LRA and Janjaweed attacks. They concluded that the ammunition was manufactured in Serbia (LRA), as well as Iran, Sudan, and Italy (Janjaweed) [see Appendix I]. Defectors also report that Kony is hoarding some of the larger ivory tusks in anticipation of a “rainy day” for the LRA. The conflict-ivory trade perpetuates the poaching of more elephants, the illicit trafficking of ivory, and violence against civilians. LRA groups have also pillaged some amounts of gold and diamonds from mining areas in eastern CAR, and Kony reportedly keeps small quantities of gold and diamonds with him in Kafia Kingi. 

The LRA, as well as Sudanese and South Sudanese poachers, pose a vital risk to the lives of the Garamba National Park rangers, who are on the front lines of what they refer to as ‘an open war.’ The rangers need support, as their activities protect not only elephants but also civilians who live in the park’s vicinity. The rangers have already proven effective in reducing the number of elephants killed by the LRA in the last three years as well as deterring some LRA attacks against civilians in northeastern DRC. However, if more action is not taken to support anti-poaching efforts and counter the LRA, the rangers believe that the elephant population, reduced from approximately 20,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 1,000 in 2015, could soon be wiped out entirely.


  1. Now that the U.S. support mission to the African Union Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) has been reauthorized, the U.S. advisors should make the mission’s primary goal to bring Joseph Kony to justice. The U.S. assistance mission should also provide additional airlift capacity to the AU-RTF and increase its programs to entice LRA fighters to defect.
  2. In the Fiscal Year 2016 appropriations process, Congress should continue to robustly support counter-LRA operations and support that Kony’s removal should be the mission’s goal. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should pass the bipartisan Congressional LRA resolutions, H.Res. 394 and S.Res. 237, which support the U.S. mission and calls for an expansion of reintegration programs for ex-combatants as well as anti-poaching programs.
  3. The United States should take a more prominent role in countering Sudan’s complicity in aiding the LRA. The U.S. counter-LRA mission should continue to deploy advisors close to the areas controlled by Sudan in Kafia Kingi so it can gather precise intelligence on Kony’s whereabouts. U.S. advisors and their African Union partner forces should establish a Safe Reporting Site at the newly established U.S. base in Sam Ouandja, CAR, and heavily advertise this defection opportunity to LRA groups in the area.
  4. Sudan should allow troops of the African Union Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) access to the Sudan-controlled enclave of Kafia Kingi to pursue Joseph Kony and remaining LRA groups.
  5. Justice officials in regional governments, including in the Congolese military courts and the new Special Criminal Court in CAR, should investigate and build dossiers against the high-level perpetrators of elephant poaching, ivory trafficking, and related atrocity crimes, including LRA commanders and facilitators, in order to establish deterrence for the ongoing poaching crisis. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime should assist in the investigations and prosecution strategies.
  6. Foreign courts, particularly in the European Union and the United States, with jurisdiction over individuals and companies suspected of high-level involvement in illegal ivory trafficking should investigate the most serious cases of trafficking, natural resource pillage, money laundering, and other related crimes. Such individuals and companies should also face targeted sanctions where evidence shows violation of E.U., U.S., or U.N. sanctions regimes aimed at supporting peace in central Africa.
  7. The U.S. advisors on the counter-LRA mission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should work more closely with the Garamba National Park rangers and help interdict the trade from Congo to Sudan, and Congress should provide adequate funding for the anti-poaching work in this region.
  8. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finalizes the rule on U.S. restrictions on ivory sales and imports, it should maintain narrow exemption language in order to eliminate loopholes that would allow ivory traffickers to continue to bring ivory into the United States in smaller trinkets. In particular, FWS should keep the proposed trading ban intact on items "wholly and primarily" made of ivory. Furthermore, FWS should maintain the proposed burden-shifting scheme, such that ivory carriers and importers should bear the burden of proving they are eligible to import ivory under specific exemptions.
  9. Members of Congress should co-sponsor the Global Anti-Poaching Act, H.R. 2494, introduced by Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), and the Senate should move swiftly in conjunction with their House colleagues to address this serious issue. If passed, the bill would help create consequences for atrocity perpetrators sustaining themselves through wildlife trafficking by making wildlife trafficking a predicate offense for money laundering, and support the professionalization of partner countries’ park rangers.


Map shows approximate route poachers take from kill sites in Garamba National Park, DRC, to trading depots in Kafia Kingi