Last week we received the devastating news that intense gun battles with poachers in Garamba, one of the most important National Parks in Central Africa for elephants, had left four rangers dead and the park helicopter riddled with bullets and out of action. African Parks requested urgent support to repair their damaged helicopter, cover the costs of a temporary helicopter, and provide essential communications tracker units to their rangers. The Elephant Crisis Fund immediately committed and sent $150,000 to African Parks to cover these costs.
The following is an extract from an appeal for urgent support from the field, by Erik Mararv, Garamba Park Manager, African Parks
On the 30th of September one of our collared elephants was poached. We located the carcass but the poachers had moved on with the collar in hand. The collar continued to emit signals allowing us to follow the poacher’s movements. On the 5th of October, we decided to send in a ground team of ten rangers. This area is outside of range of our normal radio footprint, so the team had two satellite trackers and two Thuraya phones with them to aid in communications.
Using the handheld VHF receiver for the collar, the rangers moved into the poacher’s camp. The group was far higher in numbers than anticipated, and the rangers were fired upon from all angles.
The park helicopter, after hearing the firefight, urgently came to the aid of our team, but was immediately shot at by PKMs (belt fed machine guns) from the poaching camp, and had to pull up and out of firing range. While circling at a higher altitude our pilot saw six of the original ten rangers pull back towards the landing site, waving a white flag. Covered by a stand of trees but unable to land, they were picked up and slung out to the open ground roughly 1.5km away (an emergency move utilized for the first time). Two of those six men, one of whom had been shot, were flown to base, leaving four men on the ground to search for the other missing four rangers. Unfortunately, the helicopter was also hit multiple times and it is a small miracle that Frank, the pilot, was able to return to base with the wounded ranger. Given the extent of the damage it was impossible to return to the contact site with back-up forces and to rescue the remaining eight rangers (four of whom were still missing).
We then requested immediate and urgent assistance in the form of aircraft from MONUSCO (the UN’s Stabilization Mission in the DRC) and Africom (the US Defense Departments combatant command in Africa). Initially Africom confirmed that they would send a helicopter the following morning. But with no time to spare, we decided to immediately deploy another 12 rangers (the only ones in station at the time) with two vehicles, to the point on the main road closest to the contact site. After driving throughout the night they arrived there at 6am on the 6th and began patrolling the road. Unfortunately, by midmorning, on the same day, we learned that Africom had cancelled the helicopter.
After numerous attempts at contacting our rangers who were still on the ground but to no avail, one of their satellite trackers began emitting a signal – from the middle of the poacher camp. The tracker was now in their hands and we were able to track the poaching group for the following 48 hours.
Our Cessna did three flights over the area during the course of that day. On the first flight, the four rangers that had been slung to the landing site were spotted – but waved the plane away in fear of having their position revealed. Unfortunately, we were unable to drop them the radio and satellite tracker. We could see the poachers were still near the contact site (per the tracker), and that their group was made up of at least 30 or 40 armed men.
On the night of the 6th, the four rangers that had been left at the landing site managed to walk out, and were found on the main road by the park vehicles patrolling the route.
The following evening on the 7th of October, Monusco finally made two MI-17’s available. However, they determined mid mission that the situation was too dangerous for them and that they could not land at the shooting site, and so any possibility of finding the four missing rangers was aborted. The two helicopters returned to Dungu; and it was very clear we were on our own.
Only today, on October 8th, did our own men on the ground succeed in reaching the site and in finding our men. I regret to inform you that all four rangers are dead. Their names are:
- Anselme Kimbesa Muhindo,
- Andre Gada Migifuloyo
- Djuma Adalu Uweko, and
- Colonel Jacques Sukamate Lusengo, the member of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC), who was assisting with patrols.
The four men leave behind their wives and families, a total of 14 children combined.
We are, as I write this, retrieving the bodies and bringing them back to their families, and planning for funerals. This is no easy task on so many fronts, and a complicated process as the positon of where the bodies are located is a two days walk from the closest road.
This is a devastatingly hard blow for the lives that were lost, the families they leave behind, the morale of our ranger teams, to the park overall and to conservation in DRC. Garamba National Park is the last real beacon of hope for Congo in terms of a viable elephant population, and we are under a real siege, and fighting incredibly well-outfitted and incentivized armed groups. We have made tremendous progress in protecting the park over the last year, increasing our control and patrol area over the park from 30% to almost 100% today. But this requires a lot more resources, technical, human and financial. And we need help.
This is a dark period for us here, but what remains extraordinary is the human resolve, and spirit of the ranger teams who enter knowingly and courageously into harms way, who fight alongside each other as protective units, and even while mourning their fallen friends, continue in their mission, again and again, each and every day.
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Photo courtesy of African Parks/Andrew Brukman