The Terror Trade of Big Game Poaching and How New Technology Can Fight It.
Africa’s wild elephants are under siege. Terrorism has pushed the poaching trade into a billion-dollar business, prolonging Congo’s twenty-year-old civil war, which has left more than 2 million people dead, according to a USA Today article last March.
Garamba National Park is a 1,930 sq. mile expanse of savannahs and grasslands cut by two rivers. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of seven wildlife parks in the Congo managed by non-government organizations (NGO).
“Wild elephants in the Congo will become extinct in our lifetime,” Jonathan Hutson, a human rights activist, said at the Suits and Spooks NYC 2013 summit held in New York City. Hutson disclosed that he works for the Satellite Sentinel Project and the Enough Project, but that the opinions he expressed belonged to him and were not the views of those organizations.
Mr. Hutson’s discussion, a slide deck titled If I Can See the Sky, from which he told his riveting story, wasn’t so much filled with opinion as populated with facts that were chilling and sobering.
The ivory trade fetches $1,200 per pound. With a tusk weighing 75 pounds apiece and two tusks per elephant, it makes the ivory for a single elephant worth $360,000. So which poor, on the run, battle-hardened rebels would turn down that kind of payday? None.
In 2012, that robust business attracted al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda faction from Somali that was behind the Kenyan mall massacre and the target of the ensuing firefight with U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six raid that failed to capture its leader, the master planner.
The escalation of the poaching war has turned the reproduction of wild elephants, which suffers from declining birth rates into a negative feedback loop that one day will reach a point of no return, if something isn’t done soon.
The New Terror Trade of Ivory
“In 1970, there were more than 20,000 wild elephants in Garamba National Park. Today, there are less than 2,500 elephants,” Jonathan Hutson said.
The poaching of the elephants has become the core business of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by the ruthless Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony.
The LRA operates in the Garamba National Park, outnumbering the 130 park rangers by a ratio of three to one. Over the years, the LRA has displaced 400,000 people, killing and maiming thousands of others, abducting hundreds of children to be sex slaves or child soldiers. The money earned in the ivory trade enables “the LRA to buy food, weapons, and medical supplies,” Hutson said.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, who robbed banks near state borders to outrun the law, Joseph Kony has so far avoided capture by shifting locations by border hopping between the Congo and Sudan. “The LRA delivers the ivory to Khartoum, where the tusks go to China,” Jonathan Hutson stated.
Knowing the buyer, Hutson and his team admitted, has become a much greater challenge, as the need to educate them on the illicit trade is vital in shutting the LRA down. So the team conducted a survey to educate the Chinese people, who represent the bulk of the buyers. Most of those polled (70%) didn’t know “elephants die when they buy tusks,” Hutson said. “Of the 80 percent of who did know that, now knowing an elephant would die made them disinterested in buying anymore ivory.”
Hutson pointed out that the U.S. is second to China in buying wildlife products. But then he re-emphasized that educating the demand side of the ivory trade will be critical for a long-term solution.
Leveraging Technology to End the LRA
Jonathan Hutson made a convincing argument that using technology can turn the tide in the civil war, put an end to the poaching, and bring about the demise of the LRA. With no tourists and civilians in the park, he sees the use of geospatial intelligence to track the LRA and help save the last wild elephants of Garamba.
“Tracking the Lord’s Resistance Army will include motion-activated cameras setup along the two rivers of the region, radar, GPS, drones, topographic maps, and hydrogeology experts,” Hutson said. In the latter, the LRA dam springs and streams for drinking water. “Infrared on drones could capture the locations of their campsites.”
On more than one occasion, the rangers were hot on the trail of the rebels. They came across an abandoned campsite and “the rangers found bushmeat still bubbling in the pot, vinyl tarps, mosquito nets, machetes, a dammed up spring, and footwear from one of the female captives,” he said, showing photos of the bushmeat stew and a woman’s sandal.
That sandal belonged to one of the 250 kidnapped women and children. But as long as the park rangers—a ragtag bunch dressed in worn out tee-shirts—are “outnumbered, unfed, outgunned, underpaid, and disorganized,” Mr. Hutson said, running down a laundry list of logistical failures, there is little chance to reverse the crisis and prevent the extinction of the wild elephants.
He also noted that soldier scarecrows the villagers had staked by foxholes didn’t fool any of the rebels, who after decades of war can’t be deceived easily.
Hutson drove home the point to canvas the park region with geolocation data that could be used to track the elephants. It would be better than the three to four years of manual tracking on the three herds with a map the rangers have marked up showing the movements of the herds. For Jonathan Hutson the back data would be enough for him to “tell the rangers where the poachers would be in five months. Follow the elephants and you will find the LRA.”
Mr. Hutson cited President Obama has committed $10 million to fight the “blood ivory” crisis. “That’s an important first step,” he said.
But if drones are ever deployed in Garamba, they would have to be long range and the data would have to be encrypted. Both cost money.
He closed with his own metaphor for the tragedy: “Africa Parks are the ATMs of poachers, terrorists, and transnational organized crime.”
Unfortunately, that has been the calling card of man through millennia—the robbers go where the money resides.