How Joseph Kony Funds the LRA

We were also shooting elephants. The LRA fighters would kill the elephants and cut off the tusks. Then the prisoners were brought to the elephant carcasses to strip off the meat and carry it back to the main camp. During the one year that I was a prisoner of the LRA, I took part in carrying meat from six elephants.”

- Testimony from an LRA defector who escaped in 2009.

Joseph Kony personally gave orders to units of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo to slaughter elephants and bring him their tusks, according to eyewitness accounts and satellite evidence compiled by the Enough Project and the Satellite Sentinel Project. Their seminal report entitled “Kony’s Ivory: How Elephant Poaching in the Congo Helps Support the Lord’s Resistance Army” has illustrated that elephant poaching is not only a heinous environmental crime, fuelled by frivolous whims of Asia’s noveau riche, but is also being used to fill the coffers of a blood-thirsty warlord and foot the bill for the LRA’s disorder and mayhem throughout Central Africa.

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The plight of the African elephant has never been so urgent. Photo by Vidhi Doshi

According to the report, rangers of Garamba park was first exposed to them in 2012, when an 18-year-old woman who had escaped her LRA abductors, reported that Joseph Kony himself had given orders to to kill elephants and send the tusks to him. She also reported that once seen LRA rebels with 10 tusks.

Then, in early June last year, according to Garamba Park manager Luis Arranz, his rangers “encountered a small group of LRA with three to four armed fighters and some children. The group threw their bags and ran away. Some of our rangers picked up the bags, which were full of elephant meat. The rangers also found the carcasses of two elephants without any tusks.”

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Garamba park rangers with an elephant carcass. May 2012, NURIA/ORTEGA from “Kony’s Ivory”

According to an employee of the park authority, “The children tell us that they have seen white helicopters landing next to LRA fighters and that the fighters are given food, guns, and ammunition in exchange for the ivory, which is then loaded onto the helicopters.”

Raw ivory, which can fetch up to $1300 per pound is easy cash for LRA rebels who have became permanently established in Garamba since 2005. Ugandan combat forces, supported by US advisers are denied access to the DRC. As a result, Garamba has become a safe haven for the North Ugandan rebel group. Operating in Central Africa’s forests and savannahs has given the LRA easy access to elephants, whose tusks prove to be a useful source of revenue for an organisation, which is under-resourced and poorly funded.

Ivory has been transported to Kony through the Central African Republic since as early as 2010. An ex-LRA Junior Officer has reported that a senior rebel leader, Brigadier Vincent Binansio “Binany” Okumu, who was a close confidante and bodyguard of Kony himself was in charge of ivory hunting in Garamba. One eyewitness reported personally seeing Binany transporting ivory to Kony. Binany was killed by Ugandan troops in January 2013, however, the apparatus he set in motion, to carry out a large-scale massacre of elephants remains.

Escapees have reported that the LRA operates in three main groups and eyewitness estimates suggest that a total of 70-100 of LRA’s armed fighters along with 150-200 women and children are inside Garamba national park. According to ex-LRA fighters, Kony regarded Garamba national park of key strategic importance.

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Damage to Garamba HQ caused by attacks by 150 LRA fighters in 2009. 16 people were killed. (Photos by Jonathan Hutson/ Enough Project)

Caught in the crossfire, elephants whose lives are worth less than their tusks, are disappearing at an alarmingly rapid rate. In the 1970s, Garamba National park had around 20,000 elephants. According to the most recent aerial census, around 1800 elephants survive today.

The testimonies of escapees and defectors have furnished our understanding of how the LRA operates and terrorises innocent villagers for no apparent purpose at all. The LRA’s despicable human rights violations, including murder, mutilation, rape, abductions of children and adults, sexual slavery, and horrifying massacres were all brought to notoriety by ‘Stop Kony’, an awareness campaign launched by the NGO, Invisible Children. The heinous war crimes of it’s leader, Joseph Kony, were brought to light by the Kony 2012 video which has now received over 97 million views on Youtube.

The LRA is a relatively small organisation, with perhaps as few as 250-400 fighters. Yet it is responsible for civilian casualties of at least 1,260 and at least 2,842 abductions.

The LRA is not the only terror group involved in the ivory trade. Reports that Durfur’s Janjaweed and Somalia’s al-Shabab have also been noted by park rangers. Congo’s political instability and rampant corruption make the nation particularly vulnerable to criminal syndicates.

The report has illustrated that ivory indeed is fast becoming a conflict resource and its illicit trade must be taken more seriously be world leaders. In November 2012, former US Secretary of State pledged $100,000 for the enforcement of illicit trading noted it as a potential security threat:

“I’m asking the intelligence community to produce an assessment of the impact of large- scale wildlife trafficking on our security interests so we can fully understand what we’re up against.”

£100,000 is a small amount for a nation that has a gross annual income of $15.2 trillion, but Clinton’s precedent must not be ignored: leaders from across the world need to come forward and make similar gestures against the abhorrent activities of Joseph Kony and other warlords who are plundering what’s left of our environmental heritage to fund mindless slaughter and abject war crimes against innocent civilians.

Slipping through the net: The illegal online wildlife trade

On Friday, three men from the Fujian province in China, named Chen, He and Zhao were sentenced for smuggling a total of 7.7 tonnes of ivory from Africa to China. The trio’s activities account for the deaths of 819 African elephants, over a period of six months in 2011, which was already labelled an annus horriblis by the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC – the worst year for elephants since records began. The landmark sentencing is a victory for wildlife protection authorities in China, where the illicit ivory trade is thriving. However, under-funded wildlife authorities across the world are scratching their heads about how to regulate the illegal wildlife trade as it moves online.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

The role of crime syndicates such as the Fujian trio, in the illicit trade of wildlife is becoming increasingly clear. The New York Times recently compared the ivory trade with Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds: a “conflict resource”, which is luring in notorious armed groups such as Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed. These groups are plundering Africa of its most majestic beasts; hunting down elephants and selling their tusks to fund militant movements and bring weapons and disorder into war-torn regions of Africa.

As elephant populations disappear rapidly, the illicit trade of ivory is growing. A report by Interpol and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) published last month noted that hundreds of ivory items, worth approximately 1.5million euro were being advertised for sale over a two-week period of online surveillance. In an earlier report, in 2011 IFAW reported that ivory was the most widely traded wildlife product on the Internet. IFAW found over 660 ivory products on various auction sites including Ebay, with no indication that the seller had supporting documentation to prove that the ivory was acquired before the 1989 trade ban.

Vincent Nijman, a researcher at Oxford Brookes University who has researched the trade of wildlife products, however explained to me that high value products such as ivory or the rhino horn represented only a fraction of the online ivory trade. A simple Google search returns hundreds of advertisements for lesser-known, critically endangered species – dried seahorses, Kaiser-spotted newts, tortoises: auction sites and forums housed hundreds, if not thousands of adverts for illegal wildlife products.

I went looking for illegal wildlife products online and found that they were just a few clicks away.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

This seller is advertising two baby pangolins, a critically endangered species sought for its scales and its meat. Trade of this anteater has been banned since 2002.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

This seller advertising a critically endangered six-inch Ploughshare tortoise on a Facebook group entitled tortoises for sale. One commenter writes: “these tortoises are an endangered species its illegal to sell them!!!” but the group administrator writes “Sold.”

This was only after a few minutes of research, but it does indicate that the illegal wildlife trade is mushrooming through social networking and auction sites as well as online forums. If these species were so easy to find online, on open auction sites, I wondered what I would find in the black abyss of the Dark Web.

The TOR network, which stands for The Onion Router is an online anonymity network, which bounces IP addresses all over the world, layering encryption and making it virtually impossible to track a user’s location. If big game is lurking somewhere on the Internet, it’s most likely to be here.

TOR is the back alley of the Internet. Here, any arms-dealing, child-porn-watching, cocaine-snorting assassin could advertise his nefarious talents – and they do. Senator Charles Schumer asked US federal authorities to shut down websites on TOR when it was launched in 2011 but so far TOR has completely stumped surveillance units. Websites are hosted anonymously and users are virtually untraceable.

An officer from the National Wildlife Crime Unit assured me that UK surveillance authorities were aware of the illicit wildlife trade on the Deep Web. However, he said, most of the traders communicated via forums and message boards. Derek Mead exposed a Dark Web rhino horn seller on a Dark Web message board under the username Keros who offered to sell him “pure keratin hunted in Namibia.”

I started at the Silk Road.

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Photo by Vidhi Doshi

The Silk Road is like a more magical Amazon, where instead of buying books or DVDs, people come to buy pills and powders of all colours and sizes. Drugs, porn, and stolen goods are easy to find here, but no reptiles, no chimps, no rhino horn and no ivory.

What all this tells me, is that though the illicit wildlife trade is nowhere near as large and lucrative as drugs or arms, it is there: lurking in the background, increasingly organised and increasingly sinister. The fact that people don’t feel the need to resort as much to the Dark Web to sell ivory suggests that too many loopholes in the law around wildlife trade are allowing people to disguise illegal products as though they are perfectly legal.

This means that already underfunded wildlife crime units devote a large part of their resources trying to distinguish which products are being sold legally and which are illegal. The law around wildlife trade is clearly in dire need of revision so criminal syndicates can be caught more easily.

Europe’s wild cattle

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Europe's wild cattle

An image shot by a brilliant photographer from Poland, Sebastian Lasek. Wild cattle, such as these bison as well as others like the Heck cattle, have been used in Pleistocene rewilding programmes in Europe. These programmes aim to introduce populations of wild cattle to replace the aurochs that were made extinct due to hunting in the 17th century. The idea is, that by introducing megafauna into ecosystems, a natural chain of events will restore ecosystems to the state they were in during the Pleistocene era (long before humans).

Scientists are still in the early stages of testing rewilding programmes. It is important to note that rewilding experiments can go wrong, and reintroducing megafauna (large animals) into the wild can have dramatically undesired results. This month’s National Geographic magazine explored the ethics of cloning the woolly mammoth back into existence. The split over de-extiction initiatives seems to be between people who were emotionally scarred by Jurassic Park, and those who weren’t. However, it is important that overenthusiastic scientists weigh up the pro’s and con’s of rewilding.

National Geographic and SOOANG are working in collaboration on a project to clone the woolly mammoth back into existence. According to scientists, the woolly mammoth’s large hooves once ploughed the grasslands of Europe. But after they became extinct, those ecosystems dried up. Re-introducing the woolly mammoth to the wild could dramatically change European wilderness.

Bisons and auroch-like cattle can be thought of as the first step in judging whether more ambitious Pleistocene rewilding programmes, such as resurrecting the woolly mammoth could work.

Maasai herds rise in protest against evictions from ancestral lands

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An Emirati hunting company, the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) has leased a chunk of land near the Serengeti National Park for private hunting groups, resulting in the displacement of 30,000 residents in the area as well as the nomadic Maasai who rely on this land to graze cattle.  The OBC is a big game hunting company through which hunters from the UAE come to Tanzania to hunt lions and leopards. The Tanzanian government maintains that trophy hunting generates immense revenues and brings much-needed foreign money into a debt-ridden nation. Trophy hunting also incentivises tourism companies to conserve drought-prone land for wildlife.  However, the OBC's further marginalise a nomadic tribe that has been repeatedly displaced from its ancestral lands, first by the British colonial establishment, and later by post-independence national governments. The Maasai, famed for their ability to jump high, and ancient (now outdated) customs such as hunting lions and drinking cows blood, draws millions of tourists to Tanzania and neighbouring Kenya.  This proposal, would remove almost 40% of Loliondo's highland prairie and forested mountains from the Maasai's reach. In retaliation to the OBC's land acquisition, the Maasai have protested by throwing away membership cards to Tanzania's incumbent party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). One Maasai woman, Ms Tenemeri told the BBC, "My son is in secondary school because of the grass from here. "If they need my land they can kill me." The campaign against the OBC corridor is spearheaded by local women, who depend most on the land near Lolindo. Local politicians initially voiced support against the OBC but have since turned their backs on the Maasai by refusing to resign from the party as they had promised to.  Tanzania's tourism minister, Khamis Kagasheki defends the evictions, saying the project will promote conservation as the Maasai are exhausting the land. "These 1,500 sq km are a crucial breeding area for wildlife, a corridor for the iconic great migration of wildebeest, and a critical water catchment area," he said in a press release. He has also accused the Maasai of living in Lolindo illegally and defended the government's right to use the land to boost tourism revenues.  However, Maasai groups claim to have title deeds to their land in Lolindo. Maasai groups will take the government to court over the evictions.


Maasai herds evicted from ancestral lands in Lolindo

An Emirati hunting company, the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC) has leased a chunk of land near the Serengeti National Park for private hunting groups, resulting in the displacement of 30,000 residents in the area as well as the nomadic Maasai who rely on this land to graze cattle.

The OBC is a big game hunting company through which hunters from the UAE come to Tanzania to hunt lions and leopards. The Tanzanian government maintains that trophy hunting generates immense revenues and brings much-needed foreign money into a debt-ridden nation. Trophy hunting also incentivises tourism companies to conserve drought-prone land for wildlife.

However, the OBC’s further marginalise a nomadic tribe that has been repeatedly displaced from its ancestral lands, first by the British colonial establishment, and later by post-independence national governments. The Maasai, famed for their ability to jump high, and ancient (now outdated) customs such as hunting lions and drinking cows blood, draws millions of tourists to Tanzania and neighbouring Kenya. This proposal, would remove almost 40% of Loliondo’s highland prairie and forested mountains from the Maasai’s reach.

In retaliation to the OBC’s land acquisition, the Maasai have protested by throwing away membership cards to Tanzania’s incumbent party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).
One Maasai woman, Ms Tenemeri told the BBC, “My son is in secondary school because of the grass from here.

“If they need my land they can kill me.”

The campaign against the OBC corridor is spearheaded by local women, who depend most on the land near Lolindo. Local politicians initially voiced support against the OBC but have since turned their backs on the Maasai by refusing to resign from the party as they had promised to.

Tanzania’s tourism minister, Khamis Kagasheki defends the evictions, saying the project will promote conservation as the Maasai are exhausting the land.

“These 1,500 sq km are a crucial breeding area for wildlife, a corridor for the iconic great migration of wildebeest, and a critical water catchment area,” he said in a press release.

He has also accused the Maasai of living in Lolindo illegally and defended the government’s right to use the land to boost tourism revenues.However, Maasai groups claim to have title deeds to their land in Lolindo.

Maasai groups will take the government to court over the evictions.

 

 

 

No elephants at India’s Elephant Festival

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Jaipur, 26 March 2013

Jaipur, 26 March 2013

I was in Jaipur, India for this year’s annually celebrated Elephant Festival held in the so-called ‘pink’ city two weeks ago. The Elephant Festival is supposed to be held to celebrate Holi, an Indian festival that fills every street with colour to inaugurate the spring season. The festival, held at the Rajasthan Polo Grounds, boasted a plethora of Jaipur’s finest talent: dancers in traditional garb, singers thrilling foreign audiences with folk songs, and turban-tying competitions that left the tourists in a twist. This year’s elephant festival however, was conspicuously missing one thing: the elephants.

The cavalcade of elephants, pimped-out so to speak, for a beauty competition which is usually followed by a tug-of-war and an elephant polo match – as it turns out – was flagged by animal rights’ activists from PETA as a cause of serious ill-treatment of the animals, with the Mahouts using inhumane techniques such as iron hooks to train the elephants.

So, whilst many tourists were disappointed at the lack of jumbo-sized pageantry at Jaipur this year, Rajasthan Department of Tourism’s decision to scrap the elephant festival was a decisive gain for the elephants themselves. Assistant Director of Tourism Department of Rajasthan, Upendra Singh Shekhawa passed the buck to the state-controlled Animal Welfare Board, stating “The Animal Welfare Board of India had written to us that there is some violation of exhibiting the elephants. That is why; we are going whatever they are saying. We will adopt whatever they want”.

PETA activist Sarvgya Bhargil, explained the problem more clearly, stating that the elephants used in the festival are given insufficient food and are chained into tight spaces by their Mahout handlers, causing them to develop foot infections and arthritis. He also argued against the use of performing animals as keeping elephants and camels in captivity for long periods of time restricts their natural social behaviour and can induce health problems and loneliness.

The Elephant Festival is a clear example of how irresponsible tourism can be. The cancellation of this year’s Elephant Festival should stand as a precedent to stop the cruel treatment of performing animals in India.

Poaching Britain’s rhinos

A report in AFP today said that the British police have noted an increase in rhino poaching in Britain’s wildlife parks. The Aspinall Foundation which, a wildlife charity which runs two animal parks in Kent in southeastern England, appealed for residents living near those parks to keep a watch for suspicious activity.

The Aspinall Foundation’s chairman, Damian Aspinall, said police had told them there was a “genuine threat” which it attributed to poachers seeking the rhinos’ valuable horns.

“It is tragic and beyond belief that, as we do everything possible to restore these magnificent animals safely to the wild, the traders who seek to profit from their slaughter should bring their vile activities to the UK,” he said.

The foundation has 20 black rhinos across its two parks in Kent, out of an estimated 200 held in captivity around the world and just 700 who survive in the wild.

This report should alert us of how intense of a threat poaching is to the black rhino.