Rangers in one of Africa’s oldest national parks – the Garamba on the northeastern border of the Democratic of Congo are on the front line of the war against elephant poaching – which is increasing at an unprecedented rate.
The park’s 120 rangers, backed by up to 60 Congolese soldiers, put their lives at risk to protect the animals, but poachers now have grenades, rocket launchers and even helicopters and fatalities are common.
In October 2015, the park was rocked by an incident in which four rangers were tragically killed, after their 10-man patrol exchanged gunfire with poachers who outnumbered them.
According to a statement by African Parks, a helicopter that was part of the operation ‘was immediately deployed to help rescue the rangers.
Despite coming under fire it managed to retrieve six members of the patrol unit and drop them at a safe area where they re-grouped.’
During the exchange of fire the helicopter was hit and as a result, it was unable to fly back to establish the whereabouts of the four left behind.
Recounting what happened, the rescued rangers said almost as soon as the firefight began one of their colleagues Djuma Uweko, armed with an AK-47, was shot. He dragged himself into the thick elephant grass where he lay bleeding until the poachers found him, and shot him dead.
Two others also died, one in the initial exchange of fire while the other, like Uweko, was wounded then executed.
It is unclear how and when the fourth ranger died.
Spiraling out of control
The big herds for which the park is famous makes it an ongoing target for well organised, well armed and well equipped poaching groups that are part of some of Africa’s largest ivory smuggling rings.
Conservationists say a thriving ivory market in Asia is helping fuel the worst poaching epidemic of African elephants in decades.
The rangers say their biggest enemies are members of the Ugandan rebel group – the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), South Sudanese armed groups and pastoralists -poachers from the Central African Republic.
Between April 2014 and November 2015, two-hundred elephants were poached in the park.