Africa's elephants have long been vulnerable to hunters in pursuit of ivory, but over the last decade several of the continent’s armed groups have joined the fray, seeking new sources of funding. They profit from a thriving black market fueled by weak law enforcement and insatiable demand in East Asia, particularly China, where illicit ivory slips into the state-sanctioned domestic ivory trade. The effect is that more than 30,000 African elephants are killed each year and the pace is not slowing.
It is now safe to say that dead elephants fund terrorism. The sale of ivory benefits the border-hopping Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony, the Seleka Rebels of the Central African Republic, the Janjaweed of Sudan, and Rwandan FDLR rebels based inside Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Despite a highly publicized report alleging ivory poaching by the Somali terrorist organization Al-Shabaab, no conclusive proof has been found of their strategic trafficking in illegal ivory.)
Various national armies support this illegal activity by trading with the groups. Established Sudanese ivory poaching gangs are also an active part of the problem, moving in armed groups across international borders to kill elephants. The year 2012 saw the largest mass killing of elephants in recent history: in the course of a four-month rampage in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon, as many as one hundred heavily armed Sudanese and Chadian poachers on horseback killed more than 650 elephants.
Forces trying to protect the animals work in a vast and formidable landscape, and are often out-gunned and out-manned. This reportage shows different groups, including conservation rangers in parks, Ugandan and Congolese soldiers, and customs officials trying to seize illegal ivory shipments, who, in their efforts to disrupt poaching, have become the target of violence. In an attack near Zakouma National Park in Chad in 2012, six rangers were killed by Sudanese poachers. In Virunga National Park, over 150 rangers have died on the job, many of them killed by FDLR rebels based in the park. And in Garamba National Park, poachers killed two rangers and two army officers over a few weeks in early 2015.
The story extends across Africa, through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan, Togo and through to China, the final destination for most of the world’s illegal ivory. The pictures show the toll of the illegal ivory trade on Africa’s elephants, the surrounding communities, and the brave but meager forces trying to stop it.
Words by Brent Stirton