A deadly shootout broke out in the Congo’s Garamba National Park last month after poachers killed three Garamba rangers and a Congolese army colonel. The issue is not unique to Garamba, with similar incidents taking place in the Congo’s Virunga National Park further south. Developing new methods of combating these increasingly aggressive poachers is important both for continued conservation efforts and for the safety of the park rangers.
Part of the problem is that poachers in Garamba have embraced tactics that involve carrying automatic weapons and grenades. In the past, poachers killed the animals for money or food. Poor farmers and displaced people with little other option would kill endangered animals for their meat. Ivory is also an extremely valuable commodity on the black market, and poachers stood to make a small fortune from elephant kills.
Now, rebel groups in Northern Sudan and organizations like Joseph Kony’s Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, have started poaching as a means of cash flow to support their troops. According to defectors interviewed by the Enough Project, a watchdog group that keeps an eye on the regional conflict, Kony’s soldiers have been known to trade elephant tusks for ammunition, food, and uniforms in Sudan.
A U.N. peacekeeping force of 20,000 troops is currently deployed in the eastern Congo where many of these rebel groups operate, but that has not stopped them from continuing to poach from the Garamba preserve situated near the Congo’s border. Garamba park rangers now find themselves using outdated weapons against trained and battle hardened soldiers.
Requests for updated weaponry and for support from U.N and U.S. soldiers have met with mixed results. U.S. African Command stated that its mandate in the Congo does not include supporting Garamba’s rangers and that aiding them falls outside of U.S. jurisdiction. U.N. helicopters meant to assist the Garamba rangers in the aftermath of last month’s shootout felt the landing site was too dangerous. Garamba rangers were forced to approach the site on foot where they then found their deceased comrades.
This militarized threat has turned one of the United Nation’s world heritage sites into a dangerous battleground. Humans and animals alike are at risk. Without increased support from international peacekeeping efforts and an upgrade in training and equipment for Garamba rangers, there is nothing stopping poachers from continuing to run rampant through the Congo’s wildlife preserves.