Militias turn their guns on wildlife in Central Africa

Militarised poachers armed with semi-automatic weapons target buffalo, elephant and hippopotamus as well as other large mammals that live in protected areas. FOTOSEARCH  

Heavily armed militia and poachers are a threat to wildlife populations in the Garamba-Bili-Chinko (GBC) region in Central Africa.

The militias are decimating wildlife in the 75,593 square kilometre region straddling northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and southeastern Central African Republic.

Investigations have unearthed that poachers are trafficking in wildlife products like elephant tusks and leopard skins, among others, to South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, with corruption facilitating the illicit trade.

Garamba National Park and Bili Reserve are in the DRC, and Chinko Reserve is in CAR.

Garamba National Park, which has the Azande, Gangala-na-Bodio and Mondo-Missa reserves, is 14,635 square kilometres, and Bili reserve is 43,358 square kilometres. Chinko reserve is 17,600 square kilometres. The 755-kilometre Bomu River forms the border between the two countries.

“This remote region lacks infrastructure and government services. It is characterised by weak governance and insecurity perpetuated by activities of foreign armed groups, notably LRA,” said the Cambridge-based lobby.

CAR and DRC were at the bottom, at position 91 and 88 respectively, of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2016. DRC’s military, the FARDC, historically has been implicated poaching.

LRA

The LRA has operated outside Uganda since 2005. The militia group poaches elephants to sell the ivory and acquire supplies.

The leader, Joseph Kony, is wanted by the Hague based International Criminal Court for human rights abuses.

LRA also trades in diamonds and gold through networks in DRC and CAR. Traders in Kafia Kingi area are the final outlets of LRA’s illegal goods. Kafia Kingi is a disputed area bordering Darfur between Sudan and South Sudan.

In the CAR, Haute Kotto Prefecture is a known hub for illicit trafficking to Darfur and Khartoum.

The LRA has recently broken up into smaller groups, reducing the likelihood of detection by the African Union-Led Regional Task Force (AU-RTF) and UN peacekeeping missions.

“They operate in small, decentralised groups, with rotation of personnel between units in the DRC, CAR and the Kafia Kingi enclave, where it is believed that Kony is headquartered,” said Traffic International.

Endangered species

Liz Williamson of Traffic International, and one of the authors of the report, said lack of enforcement of poaching and hunting laws further threatens shrinking endangered species such as elephant and chimpanzee.

“The lack of governance and enforcement has rendered local communities and wildlife an easy target for exploitation by armed groups, while illegal wildlife trade fuels continued instability across the landscape,” she said.

Armed groups, illegal trade in wildlife and illicit cross-border movements have led to political instability in the countries, as CAR and DRC rank fourth and seventh on Fragile States Index.

“These poachers transport high-value products, such as ivory, skins and other trophies to larger towns and cities to continue funding their poaching efforts. This group is made up of local and foreign actors,” said Traffic International.

Poachers

Militarised poachers armed with semi-automatic weapons target buffalo, elephant and hippopotamus as well as other large mammals that live in protected areas.

Bushmeat is sold to individuals and restaurants in nearby villages and towns.

The militias include LRA, Sudan’s Janjaweed and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO) as well as groups related to the anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka factions.

Séléka emerged as a coalition of rebel militia in 2012 and overthrew CAR’s government in 2013. The Muslim alliance was bolstered by heavily armed mercenaries and poachers from Chad and Sudan.

Anti-Balaka are a loosely organised self-defence militia, made up of Christians and animists, formed in 2013 to oppose Séléka. Over 14 factions, local militia and regional mercenaries are fighting to control CAR’s resources.

The rise in sectarian violence in CAR in 2013 created an ideal space for the LRA to operate in. UN troops control some towns in Mbomou and Haute-Kotto prefectures, but LRA has exploited gaps in security.

Violence

Traffic International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature in a recently concluded assessment found that GBC is losing its wildlife at an alarming rate.

“People and wildlife in this landscape have been deeply affected by the spillover of a long and complex history of violence and civil war in Sudan and South Sudan,” said the wildlife conservation organisations.

Janjaweed has poached CAR’s elephants since the 1980s, and has recently moved into the DRC.

Armed poachers from South Sudan are considered the greatest threat to Garamba’s wildlife. South Sudanese poachers appear to be soldiers, former soldiers, police officers and civilians.

The armed groups enter the DRC through Lantoto National Park.

A field investigative team from Traffic International and IUCN collected data, carried out research, and held discussions in 87 villages with over 700 people including traditional, religious and local leaders.

The investigators recommended incentives be put in place to discourage poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking activities, as well as developing economic opportunities for communities living in the GBC region.

Other recommendations to save the wildlife include strengthening law enforcement, engaging pastoralist communities, and improving transboundary conservation collaboration.

“It highlights the need for governments and other actors to work together as a global conservation network to stop the slaughter of wildlife in this region,” said IUCN Cameroon programme head Leonard Usongo.

A trafficker sells bushmeat in an undisclosed location in South Sudan on February 27, 2014. AFP PHOTO | WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY | PAUL ELKAN

Bushmeat is transported on motorcycles and in cars to villages and towns. Traders sell ivory, coats of big cats, teeth and claws hidden in bags of palm oil, pepper or cassava.

Routes

The investigators learnt that the routes used by traffickers are not fixed since they are serving black markets: Buyers do not always use the same locations and often have flexible itineraries.

There is also the presence of armed Mbororo, a subgroup of nomadic Fulani cattle herders, in northeast DRC. Most of the Mbororo now living in CAR arrived in the 1920s from Cameroon and Nigeria, through Chad.

From 2004, the Mbororo began to settle in CAR facilitated by Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for Liberation of Congo. Mbororo are viewed suspiciously by the local Congolese communities.

Their culture, religion and lifestyles are different, and are perceived to be taking over the land from residents. They are viewed as illegal immigrants.

“Fulani have been reportedly trafficking ivory and leopard skins to South Sudan and Uganda. There are strong indications that Janjaweed are still benefiting from illegal ivory transiting through Kenya,” said Traffic International.

Trafficking routes. According to key informants of Traffic –IUCN investigators, poachers in Democratic Republic of Congo often use motorcycles serving the road between Faradje and Durba to arrive at or depart from Garamba. PHOTO COURTESY

Conflicts with the Mbororo are blamed on competition for resources like water, illegal grazing, trampling of crops by livestock, and cattle herds taking over pasture from wildlife.

About 60 per cent of Mbororo interviewed admitted to being in violation of immigration laws, but planned to stay in the DRC anyway.

Hunting generates income for people living around protected areas in the GBC region, and about 20 per cent of men in northeast DRC engage in small-scale poaching.

Households get 11.6 per cent of annual income from artisanal mining of gold and diamonds in Bili. A study in Garamba found 82 per cent of miners earned enough for health care, school fees and basic needs.

“Some 18 per cent said the income from mining did not meet their needs. Although price of gold in area is $25 to $35 per gram, an individual’s yield from artisanal mining does not reach marketing units of whole grammes,” said IUCN.

The first points of sale for illegally procured wildlife products in CAR are Rafaï and Zemio towns. Zemio is the largest trading centre in the southeast for elephant meat and orphaned chimpanzees.

Some of the poachers are linked to backers who supply guns and ammunition. They too sell the meat locally, but the ivory and skins are transported to larger towns and cities including Bambari, Bangassou, Bria and Bangui.

Traffickers

Around Bili, traffickers heading south go to Buta through Bondo or Titule, and on to Banalia and Kisangani. Traffickers heading north to CAR cross Bomu River, and follow pastoralists’ trails into open grasslands or to where the border is porous.

“To reach CAR, they cross the river at Adama, Bakpolo or Basokpio, and head to a landing point near Zemio. Using the Ango route, through Dakwa, the crossing point and interim destination is also Zemio,” investigators said.

Almost all crossing points are controlled by armed groups including ex-Séléka elements who levy illegal taxes on passengers and goods.

The first points of trade from Garamba are urban centres like Aba, Dungu, Bangadi, Doruma, Durba and Faradje. It is estimated there are about 15 to 30 ivory dealers in Dungu. Goods then move to Aru, Isiro, Buta and Kisangani.

A scout stands with elephant tusks confiscated from poachers on February 4, 2016 at the Garamba National Park in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. FILE PHOTO | AFP

“From here on, intermediaries from other countries enter the trafficking chain. In CAR and DRC, wildlife products are generally delivered to local merchants, often nationals of Chad, Libya, Mali and Senegal,” said IUCN.

Products exit DRC through Aba, a town at the border with South Sudan, or Arua on the border with Uganda. Another route is the road between Dungu and South Sudan, for ivory from Garaba to get to Juba.

South Sudan and Uganda are waypoints. At the border towns of Ariwara and Arua ivory is sold to well-connected buyers who sell it in Kampala for export to Asia.

Tusks are transported in trucks, either cut in pieces or left whole depending on the buyer’s preferences. Ugandan traders use Congolese or South Sudanese as middlemen.

“The nature of their involvement consistently points at collusion by Ugandan politico-military elites. DRC is one of main sources of wildlife products, especially ivory trafficked through Kenya,” the investigators said. Malaba, on the Kenya–Uganda border, is the main entry point.

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