- September 4, 2012
- From the Team
A New York Times article posted today includes extensive allegations that both LRA rebels and the Ugandan military forces pursuing them have recently poached elephants in Congo’s Garamba National Park in an attempt to cash in on the lucrative illegal ivory trade. Here’s a breakdown of the evidence that the article highlights, along with some additional context. We also highly recommend you watch this NYT video that contains interviews from park rangers and field researchers. Tomorrow we’ll post about the article’s implications for what international policymakers should do to investigate these and similar allegations of LRA activity.
LRA part of illegal ivory trade networks in Sudan?
For several months we’ve been highlighting evidence that LRA groups are poaching for ivory, including in my colleague Michael’s testimony before UN Security Council experts in June and in our most recent LRA Crisis Tracker report. Most of the reports come from park rangers in Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo, which LRA groups have occupied periodically since 2005.
Today’s NYT article quotes park rangers describing a clash with LRA forces as the LRA were poaching elephants, “Most poachers are conservative with their ammo, but these guys were shooting like they were in Iraq. All of a sudden, we were outgunned and outnumbered.” According to the article, escapees testified to at least 39 elephants being killed by LRA forces, and escapees say orders are to send the ivory to LRA leader Joseph Kony. We’ve heard from separate sources that Ugandan military forces have also apprehended LRA combatants with elephant ivory in CAR, just across the border from Congo.
However, the NYT article adds new information to this picture, particularly an interview with a commercial ivory retailer in Omdurman, Sudan who claims that the LRA trades ivory for weapons. This is especially notable in light of allegations that a group of LRA rebels including Joseph Kony is taking refuge in the Darfur region of Sudan. Darfur lies directly along an illegal ivory trade route that stretches from elephant-rich areas of central Africa to major Sudanese cities like Omdurman and Khartoum. It is possible that Kony is using ivory to buy weapons or other supplies in Darfur, or to gain the support of local government and military officials.
Ugandan military accused of killing Congolese elephants in April
Today’s NYT article claims that a Mi-17 helicopter with registration numbers linking it to the Ugandan military was flying over the park in early April several days after park guards found 22 dead elephants with their tusks hacked away. Park guards suspect helicopter poaching as they found the elephant carcasses clumped, possibly corralled by a helicopter, whereas elephants normally scatter when the shooting begins. The elephants were also found with only one shot to head, which park rangers claim could only have been fired from a helicopter. The article quotes Col. Felix Kulayigye, a spokesperson for the Ugandan military, as denying any Ugandan military involvement in the incident.
Reports that Ugandan military forces were involved in this mass elephant killing have been circulating for several months, but the only evidence has been largely circumstantial, such as the sighting of a Ugandan military helicopter. Though Ugandan forces have not been officially allowed to operate in Congo since late September 2011, they do occasional patrols into Congolese territory to pursue LRA forces, which could explain the helicopter sighting. However, the NYT reports that park guards think that a cache of illegal ivory recently seized in Uganda’s Entebbe airport – which matches the amount of ivory taken from the adult elephants in March – could provide a stronger link to the Ugandan military.
Though the evidence remains inconclusive for now, the Ugandan military’s history of exploitation of natural resources during its occupation of large swaths of eastern Congo from 1997-2003 means that these allegations must be taken seriously. The US has been concerned about the possibility of Ugandan forces exploiting natural resources even as it pushes the Congolese government to give them permission to pursue LRA groups in northern Congo. In a 2011 talk at the US Institute of Peace, US Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said, “We have continued to provide logistical support for their [Ugandan military] operations on the condition that they remain focused on the mission, cooperate with the other regional governments, and do not commit abuses,” a message the US has reinforced to Ugandan officials in recent years.
Check back tomorrow for another post on how US and international policymakers should follow-up on the allegations in the NYT article and on allegations of LRA activity in Darfur.