Elephants and Elephant conservation in the DRC.
Elephant Reflections brings award-winning wildlife photographer Karl Ammann's gorgeous images together with a revelatory text by writer Dale Peterson to illuminate one of nature's greatest and most original works of art: the elephant. The photographs move from the purely aesthetic to the informative, depicting animals who are at once enigmatic, individual, mysterious, elusive, and iconic. In riveting prose, Peterson introduces the work of field scientists in Africa and explains their recent astonishing discoveries. He then explores the natural history and conservation status of African elephants and discusses the politics of ivory. Elephant Reflections is a book that could change the way the world thinks about elephants while we still have some measure of control over their fate.
Read more about Elephant Reflections at the UC Press or purchase a copy from Amazon.
I read with great interest John Hart's recent analysis of data relating to "How Many Elephants Are Left in the D.R.Congo." Having spent a considerable amount of time in the Bili Uere area of northern DRC in the past decade, I responded by stating that I considered his estimates of 2500 to 3500 remaining in the marked region as far too optimistic. (I complimented this with an attached E-mail from May 2007 which represented the status quo in mid 2007.) Having been asked to comment further on my DRC experiences and to suggest possible solutions, what follows is my opinion as to why a drastically new and different approach to conservation would be the best and possibly the only hope.
First, I consider the lack of independent auditing of the effectiveness of a wide range of conservation projects a major liability in discussing and/or addressing the conservation problems of the region. The result is that endeavors are abandoned without any lessons learned, and so third parties spend even more time and resources on trying previously failed approaches--such as most of the community-based conservation projects.
Nor am I particularly moved by the recommendations of scientific researchers. When it comes to the scientific researchers roaming these parts, their main intention appears to be to explore remote corners, discover new species and new behaviour patterns in an environment where their study subjects are still not yet under serious hunting pressure. Donning rose-tinted eye glasses appears to be the way to avoid having to deal with the hard realities we face today. Being able to concentrate on field time deep in the forest, without having to think about how to limit unsustainable poaching and all kinds of corrupt and self serving officials, is a lot more fun.
When it becomes impossible to overlook the illegal hunting that goes on pretty much in every village and to ignore what is on display in pretty much every market, the reaction most of the time is: â€˜We have to study the problemâ€™. More time and energy is spent on going the way of least resistance. While the data may provide a basis for more discussions and a few more PHDâ€™s being awarded, in fact further scientific study of the problem is not needed. It is a known fact that the off-take of the majority of bush meat-hunted species throughout Central Africa is unsustainable. We need now to address the real problem - how to curtail the off-take.
In the DRC, law enforcement is almost a contradiction in terms. When former President Mobutu Sese Seko commissioned new army recruits, he instructed them to consider their guns as their wives and their salaries (meaning the guns were for use in occasional rape and looting in order to supplement their virtually non-existent pay). The traditional village chiefs in the Bili area were all given double barrel shotguns as presents (still proudly displayed by many older chiefs with brass plaques stating "Don du President de la Republique Mobutu Sese Seko"). In this context it is hardly surprising that, when it comes to law enforcement, DRC authorities - whether army or police or even ICCN rangers - often constitute more of the problem than the solution. Even in rare cases where enforcement of some national laws are attempted and poachers are arrested, the system does not take over, as the following experience illustrates.
In 2002 the whole of northern DRC was occupied by MLC rebels under the leadership of Jean Pierre Bemba (now awaiting trail for war crimes in The Hague). Perhaps he was bored in his jungle headquarters in Gbadolite, as he was easily reached by satellite phone and I would call him to discuss problems we were encountering with our research and conservation project at Bili. On one occasion he agreed to provide a contingent of rebel soldiers to assist us against a gang of poachers--former Congolese army deserters living across the border in Central African Republic. In return, we had to agree to provide the soldiers with radio equipment and to assume responsibility for their food and transportation needs. We teamed up with an American NGO in CAR who, having similar access to the top, had been provided with some presidential guards for the purpose of dealing with the poaching menace from their side of the border.
After the CAR team raided the camp of a well known poaching gang north of the Bomu River, the poachers jumped in pirogues and fled with their weapons across the river into DRC, where the MLC soldiers were awaiting them. There was some shooting and a few injuries but no one was killed. Confessions were extracted regarding the locations of their hunting camps, where a considerable amount of ivory and smoked elephant meat was confiscated. (I regret to say that in the course of being marched back to Bili some human rights violations did occur, which were video recorded by one of our trackers.) Once in Bili we were required by the authorities to pay for the poachers' medical treatment and food, and to rent a "cell" near the local police station. They were then to be marched to Gbadolite to stand trial--but then, one day outside of town, they all "escaped." Later we learned that they were let go after having agreed to tell their escorts the location of some of their cached ivory. Now they are all back poaching elephants in their old hunting grounds.
This experience is typical of a country as dysfunctional as the DRC, and it illustrates that problems related to law enforcement only start with the arrest of the criminal.
Another story, concerning two CAR poachers hunting elephants in DRC, underscores the same point. One shot an elephant without killing it, so he borrowed another bullet from his colleague with which the animal was duly dispatched. Because the hunter who had loaned the fatal bullet felt that he was entitled to half the carcass, an argument ensued which ended with the machete death of one of the hunters. After the case went to trial in Zemio (just north of the CAR/DRC border) the sentence imposed by the judge was that the culprit must hunt for him (the judge) for six months - in, as it turns out, an area designated as "protected"... Such are some of the conservation realities which exist on the ground, clearly they are much easier to ignore or study then they are to effectively rectify.
MONUC is the United Nations peace keeping force stationed in the DRC since the start of the DRC peace negotiations. Comprised of 17,000 multinational troops, MONUC represents the largest and - at a cost to the international community of well over a billion dollars per year - the most expensive U.N. peace keeping mission in the world. Despite the "progress" heralded following the establishment of the current democratically elected government, the U.N. has recently asked for an additional 3,000 troops to help secure the "peace" and basic human rights for the Congolese population. The UN mandate largely keeps these troops in urban centers.
With new mining and logging camps now springing up everywhere in places considered too unsafe to operate in the past, it is likely that the degradation of the environment is today a lot worse then it was during the war period.. Poaching gangs, heavily armed with military weaponry, will continue to decimate wildlife until nothing is left. At that point, rather than heading for Kinshasa to become electricians and carpenters, they will use their guns to terrorize local populations, a scenario which we documented already in southeast CAR where entire villages have been deserted after former poachers turned rapists and looters.
If the U.N., despite the largest and costliest peace keeping mission in history, continues to struggle to provide the most basic security during peacetime, how can ongoing appeals to little old ladies for $20 dollar donations be expected to go to fight similar battles for the environment and wildlife?
The traditional Feel-Good approach to conservation has not, does not and will not work. A drastically new and bigger picture approach is necessary. However, there is little likelihood that such a course of action will ever be really contemplated as long as 'donating a few tents or shoes' is offered as the solution. There seems little hope that the CEOs of big conservation will admit to the ambassadors of the main donor countries and the UN bigwigs in New York that their current Feel-Good efforts are failing and then--for starters--lobby for a MONUC type of force for Congo's World Heritage sites and other major areas of endangered biodiversity. Just as international assistance is required to help dysfunctional national governments to set up elections or run ministries, so too should international help be solicited to aid in the protection and management of the world's dwindling wildlife populations. World Heritage sites, after all, are officially considered part everybody's patrimony. (The Northern White Rhino which up to recently survived in one of these sites, had been increasing in numbers for two decades. Today it is extinct. It is the world's largest mammal having gone extinct in several decades with hardly a whimper in the international media, but then who wants to be associated with failure or audit it?)
Another problem to consider is the decentralization of the DRC government, creating regional parliaments and ministries. This move has created a new layer of corrupt officials who try to cash in, irrespective of the position of the national government. Recreating a government body with a coherent national mandate, in conservation, would be an absolute must.
Maybe the most direct approach in this context would be for the UN to expand the mandate of MONUC to include law enforcement in protected areas. There are some other international institutions with law enforcement capability in many of the bush meat range countries (especially in the former French colonies). Their mandate could be extended to the environmental front lines. I have no illusion that getting national governments to accept help in this context would not be easy. But the international community should argue that poaching and wildlife trading are also national security problems. Poachers are among the most likely candidates to become bandits/rebels or even terrorists once the wildlife is gone.
In my afterword for the book Eating Apes, I wrote: "It is now widely agreed that deception is a common feature maybe the key to survival of all living organisms, from virus to human. However we distinguish ourselves from other animals by having evolved a large brain that is capable of the ultimate in deception: self deception." Peddling false hope has been and is, in my opinion, one big part of the problem for conservation in Central Africa.
I recently had some of my former collaborators again submitting reports on poaching activities relating to elephants. Below is a typical example of the kind of feedback coming out of the area:
It would appear the LRA activities as far as the gangs roaming the forests in the area might have had a positive impact on bush meat poaching with many hunters worried about leaving the safety of larger villages or towns. While the LRA seems to actively hunt meat for the pot they are not known to go for elephant or trade with ivory.
The Sudanese poaching gangs which have in the past come and hunted the Bili Uere area for elephant meat every year have not been back for the last four years. It is clear that the old formula of them taking the ivory and the villagers assisting them in return for getting the meat is no longer feasible in areas like Garamba and Bili Uere. In terms of â€˜ large scale commercial poaching of elephantsâ€™ the density is now too low for these bands on horseback and camel to justify such long expeditions. It seems that after having concentrated on Chad for the last few years they are now looking at the south west corner of the CAR where there are still elephants in some of the protected areas.
In terms of active conservation the area still offers unique opportunities due to the very low human density and areas like Bili Uere representing existing protected areas. The activities of sport/trophy hunting companies appears to be largely beneficial since they are enough of a deterrent to poaching gangs â€“ even in the context of LRA activities â€“ to avoid areas in which they are active and in which they will confront poachers. Maybe this could be one of the solutions on the DRC side considering that the conservation establishment has made little progress in reactivating any kind of enforcement activities in some of these protected areas (hunting and wildlife reserves). The Ugandan army roaming around trying to track down the LRA gangs seem to have adopted some of the â€˜big man behaviorâ€™ common in the DRC of commanders holding chimp orphans as toys and status symbols. Several reports indicate that this is now the case with some of the Ugandan officers.
I advocated in the earlier opinion piece that foreign forces active and stationed in the Central African Region should be solicited to have a closer look at the poaching issue and to what extend it represents also a national security problems. As far as the Ugandan forces roaming the area (allegedly with the backing and financial support of the USA) this might have more of a negative than positive impact.
Report received from Zemio in CAR in July 2011.
As of 2008 with the arrival of the LRA in the region the poaching diminished due to the fact that the hunters were worried about encountering LRA groups. However starting this year the elephant meat from Congo again arrived regularly. Even today June 20th lots of elephant meat arrived from the DRC. There is no longer any kind of control in the market. The traders sell this meat openly as they sell the meat of domestic animals and other bush meat.
The track which used to link Demiba (on the CAR side) to Zemio has been closed. On the road to Derbisaka there is now a large gold mine and most of the hunters which supplied meat via Demiba have now gone to this gold mine to either work as miners or supply the workers with bush meat.
There are still a lot of animals around Vovodo. It is the base of a French trophy hunting outfit and they are well armed and then LRA does not dare to disturb them.
All the villages around Rafai have been abandoned due the LRA activities. The villagers all moved into Rafai. There is now less hunting, the poachers are afraid to go into the bush.
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