Friday, December 22, 2017

Fighting for Elephants, in One of Africa's Most Dangerous Corners

From today's front-page, at the Los Angeles Times, "'Am I going to get out of here alive?' In one of Africa's most dangerous corners, a fight to the death for the elephants":

Kambale Mate huddled beneath a tangle of grass, looking up at bright stars in a moonless sky, a tumble of chaotic events cascading through his mind.

Where were the other wildlife rangers, Jean de Dieu Matongo and Joel Meriko Ari? Were they alive?

He had been a ranger for only five months at Garamba National Park, the last remaining preserve for disappearing populations of elephants and giraffes in this part of Africa. Yet here he was with two comrades, hiding like small, petrified mammals in the grass. If any of them moved, a large band of poachers nearby could find and kill them.

A hassock of grass cradled his back as he looked up. He couldn’t remember quite how he had escaped the shrieking storm of bullets. What he remembered was the crunch of the crisp, dry leaves as boot steps crept through the dusk.

The world is experiencing an epidemic of environmental killings. Last year 200 environmental defenders — citizens protesting mining, agribusiness, oil and gas development and logging, as well as land rights activists and wildlife rangers — were killed, according to the London-based nonprofit Global Witness. In the first 11 months of this year, the number was 170.

The reasons are many: corruption; rising global demand for natural resources; companies’ growing willingness to exploit new areas; and a dearth of accountability, as governments and corporations increasingly work together on resource development agendas.

“We’ve seen impunity breeding more violence,” said Billy Kyte, a Global Witness official. “Those carrying out those attacks know they can get away with it. We’re seeing more brazen attacks than before.”

Total attacks have doubled from what they were five years ago, and they have been spreading. In 2015, Global Witness recorded killings in 16 countries. Last year, it was 24.

Latin America, in the midst of a boom in resource extraction as billions of dollars in new investments stream in from China and elsewhere, was the deadliest region — 110 were killed through the end of November, with the heaviest toll, 44 dead, in Brazil.

But few places in the world are as consistently dangerous for environmental defenders as Africa’s wildlife preserves. In Garamba National Park, a sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site in a remote corner of northeastern Congo, some of the planet’s last, struggling populations of elephants, white rhinoceroses and giraffes are under assault by poachers seeking to cash in on the millions of dollars the animals can bring in illegal international markets.

Of the 105 park rangers around the world killed over the 12 months that ended in July, most of them were in Africa, according to the nonprofit International Ranger Federation. Garamba saw 21 attacks within a year, leading to five deaths.

The 1,900-square-mile Garamba park lies at the crossroads of international chaos. Raiders from Sudan and Chad sweep south along a route used centuries ago to traffic slaves and ivory. Soldiers, deserters and armed rebels spill into the park from South Sudan on the other side of the border. An estimated 150 fighters with the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has left a trail of death, mutilation, child sex slavery and kidnapping across a broad swath of central Africa, are believed to roam the hunting preserves bordering the park.

“It’s the Wild West here,” said Naftali Honig, the park’s anti-poaching information coordinator. “They’re coming in from multiple countries and armed groups. We have a porous border and corrupt officials who are in the ivory chain. We also have collapsed states.”

Garamba National Park is jointly managed by the Congolese government and African Parks, a nongovernmental organization based in South Africa that teams up with governments to manage 12 of the continent’s most vulnerable national parks, covering more than 7 million acres.

Days before the April 11 attack that forced Kambale Mate to hide overnight in the grass, African Parks pilot Frank Molteno had spotted five dead elephants from the air, including two youngsters. When Honig investigated the site he was sickened to find the tiny tusks of the young elephants taken.

“The adults had their faces hacked off. There’s almost no ivory in the juveniles. They would have just killed them for nothing,” said Honig.

There were multiple gunmen, from the evidence, and they were not finished. Searching from the air days later, Molteno spotted a fire site. Mate, 24, went out as part of a team of six patrollers, accompanied by four Congolese soldiers...
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