KAMPALA: Members of a militia run by fugitive African warlord Joseph Kony are killing elephants across Central Africa to support Kony's struggling group, according to a report by watchdog organizations that are urging the expansion of programs to encourage defections from the Lord's Resistance Army.
The Enough Project, the Satellite Sentinel Project and two other groups said in the report released Monday 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 cruel warlord who is 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 Central African Republic discovered six elephant tusks believed to have been hidden in the bush by the LRA. Ugandan army officials said at the time that they were acting on information given by an LRA defector who said Kony long ago instructed his fighters to find ivory and bring it to him.
Experts say that Africa's elephants are under increased threat from habitat loss and poachers motivated by rising demand for ivory in Asia. About 70 years ago, up to 5 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. Much of the harvested ivory ends up as small trinkets.
The new report said Congo's expansive but poorly protected Garamba National Park, which once was used by LRA commanders as safe haven, is the source of some of the ivory that ends up before Kony. But Garamba's elephants also are being targeted by "members of the armed forces of (Congo), South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda," the report said, citing the concerns of park rangers there.
It said the LRA is part of "the larger poaching crisis that puts wild African elephants at risk of local extinction."
Facing pressure from U.S.-backed African Union troops tasked with eliminating its leaders, the LRA -which used to have several thousand men - is now degraded 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 can conduct hit-and-run operations that terrorize villagers and move across the region's porous borders in small groups.
Kony himself is believed to be highly mobile, but the U.S.-based watchdog group Resolve said in a report in April that he recently directed killings from an enclave protected by the Sudanese military. Until early this year, Resolve's report said, Kony and some of his commanders were operating in Kafia Kingi, a disputed area along the Sudan-South Sudan border where African troops tasked with catching Kony don't have access. Sudan's government denies this charge.
Kony, whose rebellion originated in Uganda before spreading to other parts of Central Africa, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Last year he became the focus of international attention after the advocacy group Invisible Children released a popular online video highlighting LRA crimes and calling for Kony to be stopped from recruiting children.
Some 100 U.S. military advisers are helping Uganda-led African troops to hunt down Kony and other LRA commanders. Their mission was recently set back by a change in government in Central African Republic, where former rebels who now control the country are reportedly hostile to foreign troops. Anti-Kony operations there have been suspended since April, raising fears among watchdog groups that the LRA could use the opportunity to recruit or regroup.
Poaching has also been rampant in the Dzanga-Sangha reserve in the rainforests of southwestern Central African Republic where more than 3,400 forest elephants roam, conservationists have reported. The political chaos since March has allowed poaching to escalate, and anti-poaching rangers who fled the rebel-controlled areas said that Sudanese hunters are now working in tandem with the armed rebels who overthrew the government in March.