Monday, September 17, 2012

Africa's Elephant Slaughter Funds Militias and Rebels

African elephant

The ongoing slaughter of Africa's elephants has been profiting the black markets of Asia in recent times. But now, this never-ending plague is benefiting another most powerful and bloodthirsty enemy: Africa's militias and rebel groups. In addition to financing Asian markets, the ivory tusks have also been bringing large sums to fund wars across Africa. Even more troubling is that many game wardens do not stand a chance against this massacre. Around 500,000 elephants live in Africa in present day, but several tens of thousands are killed each year by poachers and that number is still rising. While poachers are typically linked to the continuing bloodbath, new and more brutal players have entered the illicit business. They are militia members and rebel groups, who massacre these jumbo-sized creatures with heavy firearms to finance their wars. These groups include Somalia's militant Islamist al-Shabab, the ruthless Janjaweed of Sudan, and the infamous Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda who are turning the elephants' Central African savanna habitat into killing fields. Earlier this month, the New York Times wrote that ivory is now "fueling conflicts across the continent" the way diamonds once did in Sierra Leone. Tom Cardamone, an expert on the illegal ivory trade, testified at a U.S Senate hearing this May, saying that militias, organized crime syndicates, and even terrorist elements picked up on the profits made in the illegal trade of wildlife. As a result, this generated a spike in the industry's scale and posed serious concerns regarding national security for the United States and its partners.
Members of the Islamist al-Shabab of Somalia are involved in the ongoing slaughter of Africa's elephants.

While most game wardens are overwhelmed by the poaching of elephants which happens to be backed by militias and rebel groups, the situation appeared to be different in one case where eight game wardens from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) who spent several hours lying in wait between bushes and tree trunks. The wardens were tipped by an informant, who told them that poachers would show up at a particular spot in Tsavo East National Park sometime in the afternoon. When the poachers appeared, a fierce gunfight broke out lasting forty minutes. The fight resulted in leaving one Somali poacher dead, and five others in retreat with some who were injured. The significance of this incident was that these game wardens responded swiftly to a call about poachers arriving at a certain spot, and were able to show up there on time before the poachers did. In addition to that, the wardens did not suffer any losses during the attack. This indicates that the eight wardens most likely belong to a team of 3,500 game wardens led by one man, who does not feel threatened by the guerrilla leaders of such groups: KWS Director Julius Kipng'etich. After losing seven of his men to poachers this year, Kipng'etich recently issued a shoot-to-kill order which explains the success of a recent skirmish carried out by those eight game wardens. In addition to that, Kipng'etich also mobilized his troops with all-terrain vehicles, helicopters, and laboratory equipment in dealing with these militias and rebels. This is especially crucial near the Somali border, where al-Shabab warlords commit raiding parties into Kenya increasing the chances to hunt elephants. Al-Shabab, which is notorious for fighting against the government of Somalia, also ships stolen ivory to Asian markets since it controls the port city of Kismayo which is known to be a major center for drugs and weapons.
A Janjaweed militiaman on horseback.

In an area around Gulu in northern Uganda, elephants have become extinct as a result of being brutally annihilated by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). One of its members, 25-year-old Joseph Okot, was a child soldier for the LRA and was forced to hunt elephants in Murchison Falls National Park. He stated that the meat was destined for soldiers, while their commanders had possession of the tusks. This terrorist group is running amok in a region where the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan coincide. The area also has no government controls. Deserters of the group have frequently reported that they were personally reported by their leader Joseph Kony to poach elephants. This April, game wardens in Congo's Garamba National Park stole back a few elephant tusks from a group of LRA soldiers. In June, they caught another group red-handed but had to retreat when the guerrillas opened fire on them. The LRA keeps strong connections with Sudan's largest city Omdurman, where dealers trade elephant tusks for ammunition and weapons. However, it is also possible to ship ivory through Congo, Uganda, or Kenya, where customs officials are often poorly paid or easily bribed.
Flag of the Lord's Resistance Army

According to elephant expert and government adviser Michael Wamithi, the war over Africa's elephants began with a political mistake. In 1989, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) banned the global trade of ivory. Once the convention served its purpose, the elephant population recovered. But as a result, innumerable amounts of tusks began heaping together in storerooms of game wardens including those of animals that had died of natural causes. In 2008, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe acquired special permits allowing their governments to sell 108 tons of ivory to China and Japan. However, the appetite for more ivory returned immediately thus fueling the demand and the slaughter began. The killing of elephants reached a brutal peak earlier this year when poachers massacred 350 elephants in Cameroon's Bouba Ndjida National Park. The four game wardens who were overseeing the park, which covers an area nearly the size of the German state of Saarland, did not stand a chance. All they could was look on as soldiers on horseback, armed with AK-47 rifles, poured into the park. None of them were captured, but the wardens believed they were members of the Janjaweed. Wamithi and most other elephant conservationists demanded that the only way to save elephants in the long term was by urgently reintroducing the 1989 trade ban.
Since the ban on the ivory trade in 1989, innumerable amounts of tusks have been piling up in storerooms like this one.

I'm utterly shocked and mortified by this news. Not only is Africa's elephant slaughter fueling the demand of ivory in China and Thailand, but is also funding wars orchestrated by several militias and rebel groups in the continent. These include groups like the Janjaweed, who were responsible for the horrific genocide of thousands of civilians in Sudan's Darfur region. This clearly indicates that the threat of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade is not just claiming lives of wild animals, but also helping in the taking of lives of innocent civilians. In my opinion, this should be taken as a wake-up call for governments all around the world and not just Africa to step up their efforts in the battle against the illegal wildlife trade. In addition to that, these militias and rebel groups must be dealt with by any means necessary. They have taken notice of the profits that can be made through the illegal poaching and trading of wildlife, and are now using those profits to finance their wars against innocent and helpless civilians across Africa. Therefore, a global massacre has been functioning in recent times. And as long as this massacre continues, not only will Africa's wildlife and human population suffer tremendously but would greatly impact the continent's tourist industry resulting in issues such as capturing and killing of foreign tourists. The world needs to wake up; wake up to bolster its efforts to curb down this ongoing menace that is being operated by groups of ruthless and bloodthirsty cutthroats with absolutely no regard for human or animal life.

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