Elana Feldman ‘17 wrote the following opinion piece as an assignment for her Conservation and Environmental Policy class.
Elephant conservation is more than a tool to protect wildlife; it’s a tool to protect human life. Not only does illegal poaching of elephants lead to devastating declines in population size, it also indirectly funds terrorist groups carrying out human rights abuses.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the terrorist group known at the Lord’s Resistance Army uses ivory as a means of funding their terrorist activities. The group gained recognition within the United States back in 2012 with the creation of the KONY 2012 campaign created by the activist group Invisible Children. Their famous film acts as a call to arms against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan extremist attempting to overthrow the government by abducting children to build an army.
As it turns out, actions by the LRA are leading to the rapid decline in African elephant populations in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In January, the Enough Project reported that 131 elephant carcasses killed by poachers had been found in the park in the past eight months. This number has only increased since then.
Although international trade in ivory has been banned since 1989, an underground market still thrives. For example, in China, ivory is popular both as a luxury gift and as a purported medicine.
Supposedly, China’s trade is strictly domestic, but high demand for ivory incentivizes illegal purchases from poachers in Africa. In addition, under-funding of wildlife management in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, compounded with relaxed penalties for offenders, makes the trade attractive to individuals within DRC looking to make money.
The Lord’s Resistance Army uses elephant poaching as a sort of insurance. Militants can store tusks underground for months, selling them for tens of thousands of dollars as needed.
Bryan Christy, a reporter from National Geographic, uncovered an ironic twist in this story by tracking the movements of the LRA using a GPS device planted within a fake tusk. The tracker showed that the group operates from a base within the wildlife reserve of Garamba National Park itself.
How is it that this group of poachers could be hiding within plain sight?
Unfortunately, wildlife rangers are the only ones combating the LRA. And the lack of funding has left them very underprepared.
This isn’t just bad news for elephant populations, however. The LRA have long been known to terrorize local villages. Kony’s soldiers rampage towns, killing men, raping and mutilating women, and abducting children to be used as sex slaves and child soldiers.
And as long as they continue to make money from elephant ivory, they will continue to carry out these atrocious acts.
In the words of Bryan Christy, “This isn’t a business — it’s a war. Genocide and the massacre of elephants are part of the same problem.” Protection of elephant populations is also protection of innocent families in central Africa.
To add to the problem, the ivory trade may also be placing the rest of the world in danger through the existence of terrorist networks. The LRA has announced ties to the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, infamous for its use of 11-year-old girls as suicide bombers. Furthermore, Boko Haram has announced ties to the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, the Iraqi/Syrian terrorist group that has made headlines in the past few months for its presence in the Syrian Civil War.
In other words, the loss of an elephant life could have repercussions across the entire world.
However, there has been some good news recently. On February 11, Reuters reported that senior LRA commander George Okot surrendered to the Ugandan Army. On January 28, one of the top commanders of the LRA was tried on 70 charges of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. Although the group continues to carry out atrocities, it is currently in its weakest position in the past four years; Kony’s “army” has shrunk to a meager 120 followers.
What is more, there are actions we can take to mitigate these problems. First, don’t support the ivory trade. Individuals should not purchase ivory, even from domestic markets, because incentives for black markets are too strong. Also, support stronger international enforcement of the trade ban.
Next, support global policies and trades that bring money to individuals within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Decreased poverty would not only increase ability for park rangers to combat the LRA, but also decrease the appeal of poaching as an easy means of making money.
Finally, continue to support groups such as Invisible Children who call attention to war criminals like Joseph Kony. Although the International Criminal Court indicted him for crimes against humanity in 2005, it was the KONY 2012 campaign that pushed President Obama and other world leaders to invest in military action against the LRA. He continues to evade capture, but increased interest in this crisis will ensure continual interest in ending such crimes, against both elephant and human populations.