GARAMBA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of Congo — In 30 years of fighting poachers, Paul Onyango had never seen anything like this. Twenty-two dead elephants, including several very young ones, clumped together on the open savanna, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head.
There were no tracks leading away, no sign that the poachers had stalked their prey from the ground. The tusks had been hacked away, but none of the meat — and subsistence poachers almost always carve themselves a little meat for the long walk home.
Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter.
At Garamba National Park, several days later, in early April, guards spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an unauthorized flight, but they said it abruptly turned around after being detected. Park officials, scientists and the Congolese authorities now believe that the Ugandan military — one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in Africa — killed the 22 elephants from a helicopter and spirited away more than a million dollars’ worth of ivory.
“They were good shots, very good shots," said Onyango, Garamba’s chief ranger. “They even shot the babies. Why? It was like they came here to destroy everything."
Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarized.
Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.
Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the al-Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.
But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.
Congolese soldiers are often arrested for it. South Sudanese forces frequently battle wildlife rangers. Interpol, the international police network, is now helping to investigate the mass elephant killings in the Garamba park, trying to match DNA samples from the animals’ skulls to a large shipment of tusks, marked “household goods," recently seized at a Ugandan airport.
A China problem
The vast majority of the illegal ivory — experts say as much as 70 percent — is flowing to China, and though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many of them been able to afford it. China’s economic boom has created a vast middle class, pushing the price of ivory to a stratospheric $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing.
High-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Chinese online forums offer a thriving, and essentially unregulated, market for ivory chopsticks, bookmarks, rings, cups and combs, along with helpful tips on how to smuggle them (wrap the ivory in tinfoil, says one website, to throw off X-ray machines).
Last year, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory. And there is growing evidence that poaching increases in elephant-rich areas where Chinese construction workers are building roads.
“China is the epicenter of demand," said Robert Hormats, a senior State Department official. “Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up."
He said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who condemned conflict minerals from Congo a few years ago, was pushing the ivory issue with the Chinese “at the highest levels" and that she was “going to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to address this, in a very bold way."
Foreigners have been decimating African elephants for generations. “White gold" was one of the primary reasons King Leopold II of Belgium turned Congo into his own personal fief in the late 19th century, leading to the brutal excesses of the upriver ivory stations thinly fictionalized in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness" and planting the seeds for Congo’s free fall today.
Ivory Coast got its name from the teeming elephant herds that used to frolic in its forests. Today, after decades of carnage, there is almost no ivory left.
The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries. In Tanzania, impoverished villagers are poisoning pumpkins and rolling them into the road for elephants to eat. In Gabon, subsistence hunters deep in the rain forest are being enlisted to kill elephants and hand over the tusks, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.
Last year, poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. And 2011 broke the record for the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide, at 38.8 tons (equaling the tusks from more than 4,000 dead elephants). Law enforcement officials say the sharp increase in large seizures is a clear sign that organized crime has slipped into the ivory underworld, because only a well-oiled criminal machine — with the help of corrupt officials — could move hundreds of pounds of tusks thousands of miles across the globe, often using specially made shipping containers with secret compartments.
The smugglers are “Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates," said Tom Milliken, director of the Elephant Trade Information System, an international ivory monitoring project, and “highly adaptive to law enforcement interventions, constantly changing trade routes and modus operandi."
Conservationists say the mass kill-offs taking place across Africa may be as bad as, or worse than, those in the 1980s, when poachers killed more than half of Africa’s elephants before an international ban on the commercial ivory trade was put in place.
“We’re experiencing what is likely to be the greatest percentage loss of elephants in history," said Richard Ruggiero, an official with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some experts say the survival of the species is at stake, especially when many members of the African security services entrusted with protecting the animals are currently killing them.
“The huge populations in West Africa have disappeared, and those in the center and east are going rapidly," said Andrew Dobson, an ecologist at Princeton. “The question is: Do you want your children to grow up in a world without elephants?"
‘We shoot first’
Garamba National Park is a big, beautiful sheet of green, 1,900 square miles, tucked in the northeastern corner of Congo. Picture a sea of chest-high elephant grass, swirling brown rivers, ribbons of papyrus and the occasional black-and-white secretary bird swooping elegantly through rose-colored skies. Founded in 1938, Garamba is widely considered one of Africa’s most stunning parks, a naturalist’s dream.
But today, it is a battlefield, with an arms race playing out across the savanna. Every morning, platoons of Garamba’s 140 wildlife rangers suit up with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Luis Arranz, the park manager, wants to get surveillance drones, and the nonprofit organization that runs the park is considering buying night-vision goggles, flak jackets and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.
“We don’t negotiate, we don’t give any warning, we shoot first," said Onyango, the chief ranger, who worked as a game warden in Kenya for more than 20 years. He rose to a high rank but lost his job after a poaching suspect died in his custody after being whipped.
“Out here, it’s not michezo," Onyango said, using the Swahili word for games.
Later investigation showed that the poachers were members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal rebel outfit that circulates in central Africa, killing villagers and enslaving children. American Special Operations troops are helping several African armies hunt down the group’s phantom of a leader, Joseph Kony, who is believed to be hiding in a remote corner of the Central African Republic.
Ivory may be Kony’s new lifeline.
Several Somali elders said that the al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, recently began training fighters to infiltrate neighboring Kenya and kill elephants for ivory to raise money.
One former al-Shabab associate said that the al-Shabab were promising to “facilitate the marketing" of ivory and have encouraged villagers along the Kenya-Somalia border to bring them tusks, which are then shipped out through the port of Kismayo, a notorious smuggling hub and the last major town the al-Shabab still control.
“The business is a risk," said Hassan Majengo, a Kismayo resident with knowledge of the ivory trade, “but it has an exceptional profit."
That profit is not lost on government soldiers in central Africa, who often get paid as little as $100 a month, if they get paid at all.
In Garamba, the park rangers have arrested many Congolese government soldiers, including some caught with tusks, slabs of elephant meat and the red berets often worn by the elite presidential guard.
“An element of our army is involved," acknowledged Maj. Jean-Pierrot Mulaku, a Congolese military prosecutor. “It’s easy money."
Arranz has an exhausted look in his eyes. History is against him. Garamba was founded more than 70 years ago, in part to protect the rare northern white rhinoceros, which used to number more than 1,000 here. But many people in Asia believe that ground rhino horn is a cure for cancer and other ills, and it fetches nearly $30,000 a pound, more than gold. In the past few decades, as Congo has descended into chaos, rhino poachers have moved into Garamba. The park’s northern white rhinos were among the last ones in the wild anywhere, but rangers have not seen any for the past five years.
Garamba faces a seemingly endless number of challenges, many connected to the utter state failure of Congo itself. Poaching rates are now the highest in central Africa, a belt of some of the most troubled countries in the world. In Chad, heavily armed horsemen, who many conservationists say were janjaweed, recently killed 3,000 elephants in just a few years.
Garamba once had more than 20,000 elephants. Last year, there were around 2,800. This year, maybe 2,400.
“It’s like the drug war," Arranz said. “If people keep buying and paying for ivory, it’s impossible to stop it."