Shining a Bright Light on Africa’s Elephant Slaughter

Fueled by a rising demand for ivory, the mass killing of African elephants has reached extraordinary levels. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman discusses his in-depth investigation of the deadly ivory trade, which involves the U.S.-backed military forces of several African nations.

With the slaughter of African elephants sharply intensifying recently as global prices for ivory have escalated, few articles have conveyed the scope and brutality of that trade as vividly as the one written earlier this month by Jeffrey Gettleman, of The New York Times. Entitled “Elephants Dying in Epic Frenzy as Ivory Fuels Wars and Profits,” Gettleman’s report described how tens of thousands of elephants are being killed annually for their tusks, with the carnage increasingly being carried out by African armies or by brutal armed groups that use the tusks to “sustain their mayhem.”

Jeffrey Gettleman
Jeffrey Gettleman

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina M. Russo, Gettleman, the Times’ East Africa bureau chief, explained how weeks in the field helped him piece together an elaborate ivory trade that is fueled largely by Chinese demand and involves elements of the military from the Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda — all of which receive some funding or training from the U.S. government. Gettleman, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, also discussed how infamous armed groups — including the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), the janjaweed in Darfur, and the Islamist group, Shabab — all participate in the poaching.

As Gettleman notes, the current decimation of elephant herds is emblematic of a larger problem that plagues Africa’s people and its once-rich natural heritage: state failure. “That’s why so many elephants are getting killed in central Africa,” he said, “because it’s probably the most unstable part of Africa and has huge areas that are just completely lawless.”

Yale Environment 360: This article isn’t just about the massive slaughter of elephants in Africa, but the militarization of this slaughter. You identify the Ugandan military, the Congolese army, the South Sudanese military all participating in the killing. And then there are these militia groups. So what has happened seemingly all at once that these various actors turned to ivory as a resource?

Jeffrey Gettleman: I don’t think it was all at once. I think this has been going on for several years, since the price of ivory has hit record highs. The SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] in South Sudan has been hunting wildlife for years… The SPLA was hunting rhinos maybe 20 or 30 years ago to help finance their rebellion. They’ve been poaching ivory for years since then. The Congolese army has also been also doing this for years. The L.R.A., that seems to be relatively new. And I think that’s because they are circulating in that part of Congo where there are elephants — Garamba National Park — and because the price of ivory is so high.

Elephants slaughtered in Cameroon Africa

AFP/Getty Images
Elephants killed by poarchers at Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon.

What’s interesting is that even these ragtag groups like the L.R.A., which are operating in a very remote, rugged place where there is little contact with the outside world — few roads, few major towns, no cell phone network in that area — they somehow found out that ivory is now worth a lot of money. And they have seized upon that. So whatever information they are getting, it’s flowing to them about the world ivory market. It’s a really interesting example of globalization — that you can have this lust for ivory in China, several thousand miles away, and that information trickles back to these guys who are hiding in the bush, running for their lives. They are being pursued by the Ugandan military and even American special forces.

So, the short answer is that this is a phenomenon that has been going on for a while, but there has been a surge in the activity because of the high price of ivory.

e360: Are these groups actually fighting each other in order to control the territories in which elephants live?

Gettleman: No, and I looked into that. I think there have been clashes between poachers — that when they come across each other in the bush there are firefights. But we are talking about an enormous area. So there’s enough room for all these different groups to stake out their own area where they poach elephants, and there’s not a lot of crossover. Even Garamba National Park [Democratic Republic of Congo], where the L.R.A. was poaching elephants, was a bit away from where the SPLA was caught poaching elephants. And the Congolese army circulates in that area, too. But it’s enormous. I mean we are talking about thousands and thousands of miles, rugged terrain.

[In the case of the Cameroon massacre] what was interesting about the janjaweed was that they went really far — at least 600 miles in this long caravan to Cameroon, and then back. That suggests a certain amount of financial support and possibly even planning to make a journey that far and to return with the ivory.

e360: Is there any group — either of the military or the militia — that is more complicit than all the others?

Gettleman: It looks like the Congolese military is the worst perpetrator of all the different militaries. I spoke to people who study these issues very

“The Congolese army preys upon its own people and environment because that state is incredibly weak.”

closely and they said that no army in Africa is as bad as the Congolese as far as poaching. The Congolese army is a real mess. They have been implicated in countless human rights abuses, raping civilians, burning down villages, plundering illegal resources from Congo like gold, diamonds, coltan, and other minerals. So it’s no surprise that they would also be poaching elephants because that is a resource, too, in the areas where they operate.

And this taps into a bigger issue of state failure. The reason why the Congolese army is so undisciplined, and preys upon its own people and its own environment is because that state is incredibly weak. The central government in Congo barely controls that territory and in some areas it is totally irrelevant. Congo has had a legacy of decades of misrule, sometimes quite brutal. And we are seeing this now expressed against elephants. The Congolese army is notorious for not being paid, for being undisciplined, and for doing whatever they can to make money in their own illegal way.

e360: These militaries are being supported and even trained by the U.S. government. So what are the implications of this support and training if these armies are involved in the poaching of an endangered species?

Gettleman: It raises the question of should the United States be working with militaries that are breaking international or domestic laws? And should the U.S. be using its position as an ally to maybe address some of these issues? The U.S. is close to several militaries across Africa; they have common interests like fighting terrorism and preventing instability. With

Elephants slaughtered in Central African Republic

TRAFFIC/Martin Harvey/WWF-Canon
Game guards inspect a forest elephant killed by poachers in the Central African Republic.

Uganda, the U.S. pumps in tens of millions of dollars every year to the Ugandan defense force. Uganda is helping out in Somalia by providing peacekeepers. The U.S. has done countless training programs, bringing Ugandan officers to the U.S., sending American officers to Uganda. So with the situation of Uganda being implicated in some of these poaching incidents, it raises the question of whether American resources are being used to poach elephants. Because the U.S. is paying for fuel for Ugandan helicopters as part of this operation to find Joseph Kony and the top leaders of the L.R.A. If the Ugandan military did kill elephants from a helicopter [allegedly in the Democratic Republic of Congo], could that helicopter have been fueled with fuel that was bought by the American government? Some people that I quoted in the story raise that question. The Ugandans deny it. There were no eyewitnesses; nobody has found the smoking gun that ties them to that incident. But there’s a lot of suspicion and a lot of circumstantial evidence.

The Congolese military and the South Sudanese military also are trained and partially supported by U.S. taxpayers. So the question becomes, should the U.S. be using its position as an ally to address some of these issues of abuses committed by militaries that it is supporting?

e360: Your article illuminated the complexity of this poaching issue — it brings in foreign policy, global trade, the military, poverty, corruption, greed. The actors involved are civilians, rangers, officials, businessmen. How can it be stopped with so many people involved on so many levels?

Gettleman: Well, those are really good questions. One reason we did this story is because it does connect with these broader problems in this part of Africa. And it’s not just about the animals being killed. It’s about people being killed. It’s about areas being destabilized. It’s about rebel groups getting more resources to fund their mayhem. Like the L.R.A. The L.R.A. is one of the most brutal groups in the world. They kidnap tens of thousands of children. They club hundreds of people to death. They terrorize this large swath in the middle of Africa and they get away with it, more or less. And now they are kind of cornered in this part of central Africa, being pursued by all these different forces, and they are using ivory as a resource to keep going.

So this interested me: How did the slaughter and poaching of these elephants connect to these bigger issues that I spend a lot of time covering. I’ve done many stories about the L.R.A. I’ve done many stories about the janjaweed. I’ve done stories about the abuses that the Congolese army commits. So it’s all very interlocked… that’s what makes it so difficult to solve. Because so many of these issues tap directly into state failure. And that’s why so many elephants are getting killed in central Africa because it’s probably the most instable part of Africa and has huge areas that are just completely lawless.

So, there are two issues. The supply and the demand. The demand has to be addressed because the price of ivory is so high right now that many

“Should the U.S. be using its position as an ally to address some of the abuses committed by militaries?”

people are jumping into the business. So everyone agrees that something has to be done in China to cut down on the appetite for ivory. Otherwise, it’s like the drug trade: As long as there is a huge demand, it’s impossible to control. Look at how many resources are spent to try and stop the flow of illegal drugs and it just doesn’t work.

On the supply side, it is very hard in Africa because so many of the issues leading to poaching are deeply entrenched in Africa. Like corruption, like poverty, like lawlessness in these wide open spaces. Nobody is going to effectively police the Central Africa Republic or Congo anytime soon. So that probably is not the best place to start. Maybe you could better protect elephants in specific areas that are national parks, but the elephants move in and out of these national parks. And even in South Africa, which has more resources than the rest of Africa, they are still having poaching problems with rhinos and elephants. It is a very difficult situation to solve quickly because it taps into many of these issues.

e360: To continue on with the demand side. China is obviously the biggest culprit. The ivory is smuggled there and then turned into ironically the most menial objects — like bookmarks or chopsticks — now affordable to the burgeoning Chinese middle class. Robert Hormats, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, told you that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was pushing the ivory issue with China. Have you seen any evidence of this “pushing?”

Gettleman: I haven’t seen any evidence of that. When I interviewed him [Hormats] I asked him what are you guys doing about this poaching problem, and he said we are trying to work with governments on the

“From Nigeria to Congo to Kenya, Chinese citizens have been caught bringing ivory across borders.”

ground, and then I brought up the demand from China. And the question was: How do you pressure China, which is famously resistant to political pressure on issues that it considers its sovereignty? The people I speak with that know China well say the best approach is very diplomatic, behind-closed-doors conversations. And not an overt public campaign against the Chinese. So maybe that is what they are doing — or maybe not.

e360: The problem with China’s ivory consumption isn’t just on the mainland. It’s also tied into China’s growing presence in Africa. Can you expound on that?

Gettleman: So you have the demand coming from China itself. But then you also have more Chinese working in Africa than ever before — a million or more. Mining, infrastructure work. And there is some correlation between the increase of poaching in certain areas and the presence of Chinese in those same areas. There is anecdotal evidence that where Chinese are located, ivory prices go up locally. Also there have been more than a hundred Chinese caught smuggling ivory. From Nigeria to Congo to Kenya, Chinese citizens have been caught bringing ivory across borders. That’s a fact.

e360: You have covered Africa for a number of years, and often focus on some very emotional and intense subjects, including starvation, disease, rape, abuse. Had you done many pieces on poaching before, and where does this fit into the pantheon of stories about the suffering you so extensively cover?

Gettleman: I think that is a really interesting way of looking at it. I think there is a lot of brutality in this part of the world that I report on. I have spent a lot of my time chasing down these horrific abuses against people


Monitoring a Grim Rise
In the Illegal Ivory Trade

For two decades, TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken has tracked the ivory trade that has led to the continued killing of Africa’s elephants. In an interview with Yale e360, he talks about the increase in ivory seizures and the criminal gangs that supply Asia’s black market for ivory.

and now we are seeing these abuses of animals — the sexual mutilation, the mutilation of their genitals. It’s very upsetting material to surround yourself with. I try to find the same kind of compassion and empathy as I do with the other stories. I’m not going to get as emotionally involved in the suffering of elephants as I do with people. But I think elephants are special, very intelligent animals with a lot of human-like qualities and it is important to remind people that there is this dimension where the animals are abused. The elephant babies are dying. The elephant babies are being orphaned. The adult elephants are suffering.

I see my mission as trying to make people feel connected to what I’m writing about. If it’s women getting raped or people suffering in Sudan or elephants I want to give them the details and the emotion. It’s important to be objective. We need to look at both sides, be an objective observer because so many sides have a stake. But that said, you don’t want to be numb. I don’t want to be emotionally neutral.