Garamba Park - Congo DRC

This story, reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, deals with the war for Africa's elephants. The narrative core is a detailed recreation of a deadly day in Garamba National Park when the poaching of a single elephant led to the deaths of three rangers and the wounding of the park's manager. The story explores both the violent and dangerous nature of the illegal ivory trade, and the extremes to which people will go to kill, and to protect, elephants.  

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Fifteen bullets felled the elephant. It was a few weeks into Congo’s springtime rainy season and the animal, an adult male, collapsed among dense green stalks of yard-high grass. As the automatic rifle fire rattled across the savannah, a ranger at the Bagunda Observation Post–a collection of tents and thatch-roofed stone huts on a hillside to the east–radioed the news back to park headquarters. A few miles away, Dieudonne Kanisa, a compact and muscular Congolese ranger, also heard the shots as he patrolled the northern bank of the meandering Garamba River. With his elite four-man unit, Kanisa moved toward the gunfire.

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The manager of Garamba National Park, Erik Mararv, began mobilizing back at headquarters. For the previous nine months Mararv, a lean 31-year-old Central African-born Swede with a shorn skull and set jaw, had overseen 120 rangers tasked with protecting Garamba, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Alarmed by the radio alert he received at headquarters–it would be the second elephant killed that April week in 2016–Mararv grabbed his rifle and headed for the park’s helicopter with pilot Frank Molteno, a grizzled South African with a trim moustache, a military bearing and a lifetime’s experience flying all kinds of aircraft, often in places without runways or rules.

Garamba, half the size of Vermont (4,800 square miles), is one of the continent’s first national parks. The 80-year-old World Heritage Site is an immense stretch of savannah and woodland in the heart of Africa, a gently undulating landscape of nine-foot-tall elephant grass and scattered sausage trees, segmented by streams and rivers, interrupted by swamps and pocked with the scars of abandoned termite hills. It is also home to the largest, most threatened herd of elephants in central Africa, and among the deadliest places for the people committed to protecting them: in the last three years 13 rangers have been murdered in 56 shoot-outs with poachers. The corresponding elephant toll in that time: 250 killed.

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In the past decade demand for ivory grew in lockstep with China’s economy, stoked by that nation’s expanding middle class and its desire for the trinkets and ornaments that traditionally symbolize wealth and success: ivory chopsticks, family seals, bracelets, statues. Never mind that Congo is 7,000 miles from Beijing, or that the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989. The result has been a dramatic increase in poaching and a catastrophic collapse in African elephant numbers, which have fallen by nearly a third in the last 10 years to an estimated 415,000. Even China’s new plan to outlaw its thriving domestic ivory market is likely to have only a modest impact–and none at all on the illegal business of killing elephants and smuggling their tusks across borders. The ban, in fact, may worsen the elephants’ plight by hiking prices while creating a monopoly for criminals. So long as prices are high, elephants will be in danger.  

Words by Tristan McConnell & Photographs by Guillaume Bonn

The full story is available upon request.

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