Members of a militia run by fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony are killing elephants across Central Africa for ivory to financially support the struggling group, according to a report by watchdog organisations.
They are urging the expansion of programmes to encourage defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
The Enough Project, the Satellite Sentinel Project and two other groups said in the report, released yesterday, that the LRA has turned to elephant poaching “as a means to sustain itself,” and that the militia uses money from the illegal trade in ivory to acquire food and other supplies.
“With prices at record-high levels, trading illegal ivory offers the LRA another way to sustain itself in addition to its habitual pillaging,” the report said. “Former senior fighters who defected from the group report that the LRA trades ivory for arms, ammunition, and food.”
The report said Kony, a warlord accused of using boys as fighters and girls as sex slaves, gave the order to butcher elephants for their ivory as far back as 2010. Former captives say that LRA groups in Central African Republic and Congo trade ivory with “unidentified people who arrive in helicopters”.
In February, Ugandan troops operating in the Central African Republic discovered six elephant tusks in the bush believed to have been hidden by the LRA. Ugandan army officials said at the time that they were acting on information given by an LRA defector, who said Kony had instructed his fighters to find ivory and bring it to him.
About 70 years ago, up to five million elephants are believed to have roamed sub-Saharan Africa. Today fewer than a million remain. The elephants of Central Africa, a region long plagued by armed conflict and lawlessness, are especially vulnerable.
The new report said Congo’s expansive but poorly protected Garamba National Park, which was once used by LRA commanders as safe haven, is the source of some of the ivory that ends up with Kony.
In the Central African Republic, political chaos has allowed poaching to escalate. Rangers who fled the rebel-controlled areas have said that Sudanese hunters are working in tandem with the armed rebels who overthrew the government in March.
The African Union’s anti-Kony operations in the country have been suspended since April, raising fears among watchdog groups that the LRA could use the opportunity to recruit or regroup.
The report said the LRA is part of “the larger poaching crisis that puts wild African elephants at risk of local extinction”.
Facing pressure from African Union troops aiming to eliminating its leaders, the LRA – which used to have several thousand men – is now degraded as a fighting force and scattered in small numbers in Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic. Fewer than 500 LRA rebels are still active in the bush, according to the Ugandan military, but they conduct hit-and-run operations that terrorise villagers and groups move across the region’s porous borders.
Kony himself is believed to be highly mobile, but the watchdog group Resolve said in a report in April that he recently directed killings from an enclave protected by the Sudanese military.
The report added that, until early this year, Kony and some of his commanders were operating in Kafia Kingi, a disputed area along the Sudan-South Sudan border where African Union troops don’t have access. Sudan’s government denies this charge.
Kony was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Last year, he received international attention after advocacy group Invisible Children released a video online calling for Kony to be stopped from recruiting children.