Congo Elephants, Rhinos Falling to Poachers' Guns

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 24, 2005 (ENS) - A new investigation of ivory poaching in the war torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has found members of the army and police are wiping out the district's forest elephants to profit by sales of ivory and bushmeat. Meanwhile, half the country's 10 rhinos are being shipped to Kenya to keep them alive.

The elephant poaching report by the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), the DRC’s protected area authority, estimates 17 tons of elephant ivory was smuggled out of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, in eastern Congo's Ituri district, between June and December 2004.

Trade in elephant ivory has been prohibited since 1990 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The ICCN reported that 12 people acted as the main poachers, all of them linked to the military and the national police. This most recent investigation is the latest of several reports connecting military forces with elephant poaching in the Ituri forest.


Forest elephant in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo by Michael Nichols courtesy WCS)
As recently as 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme and World Conservation Monitoring Centre warned of extensive elephant poaching by "well-armed militias." That report estimated the number of elephants in Ituri at 6,700.

The DRC Army has to date declined to comment, but the head of Congo's police has admitted a lack of control over some units and said he would check out the accusations.

John Hart, a senior scientist for the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society, said the recent poaching is the worst he has seen in 30 years working in the country. He warned that the Ituri forest elephants are facing extinction.

Hart closely tracks elephant populations as head of the international project Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), a seven year old program first approved in 1997 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Hart said that today there are fewer than 2,000 elephants left in Ituri.

According to the ICCN report, the military and the police work with villagers who carry the elephant carcasses out of the forest to be sold in the villages as bushmeat. The tusks are taken to larger towns for transport to Uganda.

The ICCN report says the increase in poaching is likely because of strong demand for elephant ivory in Uganda and a rise in ivory prices at the end of last year.

In a 2001 MIKE report on elephant poaching in Central Africa, Hart and co-author Kes Smith wrote, "High ivory prices lead to increased illegal killing. Effective protection decreases or restricts illegal killing."

"In Central Africa, the demand for bushmeat, including elephant meat, has been growing for over a decade," wrote Hart and Smith.

"Although bushmeat is not as valuable as ivory on a unit measure basis, the large volume of meat available on an elephant means that the total value of the elephant is high. In some cases, the total value of the meat surpasses the total value of the ivory, especially when the animals have only small-tusks," Hart and Smith wrote. "Thus the economics of supply and demand of bushmeat, like that of ivory, drive illegal elephant killing in the subregion."

Northern white rhinos as well as elephants are on the verge of extinction in the DRC, and their numbers fell to just 10 animals before an emergency plan was inked earlier this month to translocate half the population to Kenya in an attempt to guarantee the survival of the species.


Northern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum cottoni, in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo by Simon Milledge courtesy TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa)
The DRC government approved a plan for the translocation of five northern white rhino from the country's Garamba National Park to a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya after a meeting in Kinshasa with conservation representatives, the IUCN-World Conservation Union said on Friday.

The deal was arranged by an emergency delegation headed by the African Rhino Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. The meeting was set up by the ICCN, and involved Fauna & Flora International, the International Rhino Foundation, IUCN’s Central Africa Regional Office, UNESCO and the World Bank. It was supported by the People and Parks Support Foundation.

The group met with Vice Presidents Z’hahidi N’Goma and Abdoulaye Iherodia, the minister of environment and other senior officials, and was told that the office of President Joseph Kabila had approved the plan.

“We are saddened to learn that more than a decade of talks and efforts have not been enough to secure this iconic species in its homeland. The fact that we have to move these rhinos to another country as a last resort is an unfortunate set-back, but considering the sharp increase in instability and conflict which has plagued the region for years, it is the only option left.” said Dr. Jean-Christophe Vié, acting head of IUCN’s Species Programme.

The IUCN explains that the translocation is one element of a two-part plan to save the northern white rhino sub-species from extinction and secure the national park and its remaining wildlife.

The second part commits the government and its international partners to increased support for conservation activities in Garamba, so that the rhinos can be returned to the park once security and the long-term viability of the Garamba ecosystem has been assured.

Both Garamba National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1997, UNESCO inscribed both sites on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Reviewing the listing most recently in 1999, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee noted that war and civil strife have made it impossible to manage these areas for conservation.