An Ivory Deal Gone BadI have been visiting the village of Bili, in the northern DRC/Congo, on a regular basis since 1996. This Azande settlement is located about half way between the Uele River to the South and the Mbomu in the North. The Mbomu is also the border between the DRC and the Central African Republic. This region represents part of the Congo River Basin where the tropical rain forest petters out into savannah type of vegetation, crisscrossed with riverine forest belts. Combined with the low population density the various habitats make for a unique still comparatively intact African ecosystem.
Some two years ago I started to regularly encounter bicycle caravans transporting smoked elephant meat from Northern Congo across the Mbomu River into the Central African Republic. When I investigated this trade, it turned out that it had become a major economic activity. Hunters and traders pointed out that it was largely a result of the war and the falling apart of the transport infrastructure (roads, bridges and ferries). Talking to traders and hunters I was told that there were no longer any coffee buyers visiting the region and that if they wanted to earn any hard currency (Central African Francs), the elephant meat was the most productive option.
It turned out that along a 250 km stretch of border from Mboki in the very East of the CAR to Bangassou, near the conflux of the Uele and Mbomo some three elephants were carried across the border in smoked form every day. Both Nations are signatories to CITES. On the DRC side the region is under control of the Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FLC) an Ugandan backed rebel movement which of course does not consider itself bound by international treaties signed by the Kinshasa government. However, Jean Pierre Bemba, the President of the movement, has strong views on conservation and has shown some real political will in the past when dealing with poaching issues. The Central African Republic has no excuses, they are supposed to be bound by the CITES treaty restricting the cross border traffic of any animal or animal product coming from listed species. Instead of curtailing the trafficking three different government authorities: The Gendarmes, the Military and the Mayors Office all charge a tax per basket of elephant meat crossing the river.
The south eastern part of the the CAR, not very long ago, was home to huge herds of elephants. They are all gone now. A lot of the past poaching activities is attributed to the army and I was told by several reliable sources in Zemio and Rafai that most of the meat was flown out from military airstrips to the capital Bangui. In the Obo and Mboki area whole villages have recently been abandoned when ex poachers turned bandits and started looting and raping once wildlife had declined to levels were poaching no longer could earn them a living. Many have started looking for greener pastures across the river in the DRC, and the Congo villagers told me of several elephant poaching camps inside the DRC territory, manned and used by hunters coming across from the CAR. The traditional chief of the Gbiamange Collectivite: Etienne Zelesi told me how he tried to confront one of these gangs near Adama and how he was shot at and had to take cover for several hours while being under constant fire from automatic weapons.
During a visit in August of 2004 the villagers informed me about other intruders poaching "their" elephants and wildlife. A contingent of some 6 FLC soldiers had set up base at Roa some 120 kms south west of Bili. They had broken one of the chief's arms and intimidated the villagers to serve as trackers and porters for their poaching activities. They were mostly after elephant but would take anything coming in front of their AKs and Kalishnikovs. They had introduced themselves to Roger Dankagou, the chief of the Boso Area, with a letter from their commanding officer in Buta, the main army base to the south of the Uele River,explaining they were coming for provisions to support the army. I reported the complaint of the chief and the villagers to the FLC leadership.
Nothing much seems to have happened. When I returned in early December I was told that the contingent, after killing an estimated two dozen elephants, had now moved on to Api on the Uere river only some 6o kms from Bili. In mid November they had sent a messenger to Bili contacting traders to find out if anybody was interested in buying ivory.
An out of work coffee buyer by the name of Boudouin Bulombi-Agbiano travelled to Api and bought two relatively large tusks of about 5kgs each - the large tuskers are already all gone. And here the accounts start differing according to the police statements I was allowed to review. Mr. Boudin states that he had bought both tusks for some 100 U$ or U$ 9 a kg. The soldiers stated that he had paid only U$ 45 for one tusk and had taken the other on credit.
On Nov. 5th 2004 four soldiers, all dressed in military and carrying Kalishnikovs arrived in Bili and confronted Boudoin at his house at around 10 pm. They told Baudoin that he had cheated them and that the ivory was worth double, and they wanted U$ 20 per kg and not U$ 9, or alternatively they wanted the tusks back. He explained that a deal was a deal and that he had already take the tusks to the CAR and sold them and that all the proceeds had been spent. So they beat him and his wife up and shot him through the thigh and the foot with the Khalshnikovs they were carrying. They then went onto a rampage into the village shooting into the air. In the end an 85 year old Norwegian missionary lady living on a hill top overlooking Bili was confronted and she paid U$ 400 in cash so they would stop terrorizing the village.
They however did not leave the town and when a message was sent to their commandant in API he arrived with some more soldiers and disarmed them and took the U$ 400 off them which everybody in the village assumes was the reason he made the trip in the first place. The whole group now returned to API. In early December they left with the tusks of an estimated 12 elephants which they said they would export by air from Buta to Uganda. They also took a lot of meat which they were going to sell at their home Base of Buta where the smoked meat of a medium size elephant would fetch up to U$ 250 (the prize in Zemio in the CAR is pretty much the same). Since all the big tuskers have been shot out, the ivory of elephants being shot these days brings an average of only about U$ 50.
Two of the soldiers remained behind and on Dec. 13th (while I was out in the forest) they came through Bili again, shot up the main trading post and stole bicycles and money. The message is that of a new rebel army is moving in from the East and is advancing fast with the FLC soldiers fleeing and looting as they go, as did the Mobutu army and then the Kabila one before them.
I have been asked to take copies of Mr. Boudoin's complaint and some of the police statements and to get them to Jean Pierre Bemba the head of the rebel grouping who is at present in Abuja Nigeria to negotiate with some 300 other delegates a future for the Congo.
However, I doubt that the issue of poaching and the lack of discipline of his armed forces will be on top of his agenda. The fact is the Ugandan army , which backed his movement and trained his soldiers , was a major stabilizing force in the region--it was the first army the Congolese had ever seen where the soldiers were actually being paid and as such they were more disciplined.
The UN reports accusing the Ugandan regime of looting the part of the Congo under their control resulted in President Museveni pulling out most of his troops, leaving a serious vacuum which is now being filled by renegade soldiers and new rebel groups which will make the negotiation of any comprehensive settlement even more difficult.
It was no surprise that some of the elite of Bili, being able to buy batteries for their little radios with the proceeds from the bush meat and ivory trafficking and being able to listen to what is happening in the rest of world, are wondering why their plight seems to get worse and worse. Why the developed nations are willing to intervene and allocate serious resources in places like Iraq, Kosovo, East Timor etc. while in the case of the Congo the policy seems to be one of looking the other way. There was also little surprise when one of the FLC cadres suggested that maybe what was needed to get some attention was an Osama Bin Laden. The good thing is that the ivory and elephant meat dealings will never result in the kind of income which make even the most determined of the most desperate a threat in terms of international terrorism, and poaching with army weaponry and all the insecurity it creates is clearly not classified as terrorism by the rest of the world.
Once the elephants are gone the buffaloes, chimps, duikers etc will be next. The demand is there. In the Bangui, the capital of the CAR, a 5 kg chunk of meat traded in the Congo for U$ 2, will already fetch U$ 20. The turnover of elephant meat at Bangui's PK12 bush meat market seems to be in the hundreds of kilos every day, at a price substantially higher than what the middle and upper class consumer would have to pay for the meat of domestic animals.
On Dec.14th I was near Badai, a village half way between Bili and the Mbomu River. In the forest we crossed a band of nine poachers from the nearby village of Gitalo. They had a high powered elephant rifle with them and told us they had spent a week along the Gangu river - a former strong hold of the local elephant population - and they had seen no elephant or even fresh tracks. They confirmed that the elephants were now pretty much all gone along the border with the CAR. In the other direction, as the hunters and traders confirm, there are practically no elephants left south of the Uele. That leaves the area around Bili and the one further east. However the way things are going there can be little long term hope for Congos forest elephants. I am convinced and have had reliable reports confirming that things are not very different in other parts of the country, rebel as well government held regions.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is today the only nation in the Congo River Basin where industrialized logging is not an issue - due to the ongoing war. However even without the 'door opening effect' of logging which is largely responsible for the bush meat crisis in most of the other Central African countries, the situation in the DRC seems in many ways as bad or even worse.
As for the large ecosystem between the Uele and the Bomou, not only is there no logging, but it is one of the few regions of Africa with a fast declining human population, on top of the existing, already low population density. As such there are none of the human- wildlife conflicts which can make conservation so difficult in many other parts. The habitat is suitable and still home to a wide range of species and I am convinced it holds the largest continoues population of the schweinfurthi species or possibly any sub species of chimpanzees in Africa today. Maintaining the status quo and improving things on the elephant front could make this region a real success stories. (In most other parts of Central Africa it is question of having to turn the wheel back if any kind of success is to be declared and as we now know that is ten times more difficult and costly than trying to maintain a status quo.)
Despite these unique set of circumstances there is no active conservation project in the region and despite having worked on some very specific proposals with missionaries and the traditional chiefs I have found it impossible to find any real interest from the conservation establishments.
The still very powerful traditional chiefs have confirmed that they could get the population to cooperate as far as the poaching of any protected species, if in return the coffee buying could be reactivated. They and the population would agree to fix all the roads and bridges. Donor funding would have to be found to buy two used four wheel drive lorries, the Bemba administration has already agreed to allow the export via the CAR border in Zemio from where coffee already gets shipped. In addition one would need to find a large coffee buyer (like Starbucks, Nestle etc), to pay a premium for 'elephant friendly' coffee. The fact is the coffee prizes are at present so low that at market level and considering the transport route to the next ocean port, such a proposal would not work. On the other hand the project would include a control component which with many other bush meat projects does not exist which has allowed for the high level of window dressing. The lorries and buying would be managed by a Greek National who has lived in the area for decades and any buying could be stopped by withdrawing the lorry keys the moment it is found that the local population does not live up to such an agreement. Since there would really only be one road to the CAR it would be relatively easy to control any bush meat bicycle caravans.
In addition of course there is the issue of controlling outside parties from entering the region and go on poaching sprees. The FLC in the past has shown more political will than most other politicians in the region and I am convinced that with some real resources and some diplomatic pressure, elephant poaching could be elevated to a priority issue. In the absence of any 'Eco Missionaries' on the ground a cooperative agreement could be established with the Faith Based Missionaries which are still working in the area trying to keep some kind of education and health care infrastructure going.
The problem is that none of the mainstream conservation groups I have approached seems interested in getting their feet wet in a rebel held area of the DRC which of course has not got the best of image in terms of security and return on investment in conservation terms. While there is ivory there, there are no fancy ivory towers to set up head offices in. However if there is no daring there is no chance of winning and once the elephants and most of the other wildlife are gone, it will again be the already very desperate local population which will pay the final price. One more turn in the downwards spiral.
Copyright © 2016 KarlAmmann.Com All Rights Reserved
All photographs © 2016 Karl Ammann
website by the Goldray Consulting Group