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Life returns

  • Written by  Stephen Cunliffe
  • Published in Wildlife
The parks’ grasslands support large herds of elephants The parks’ grasslands support large herds of elephants Stephen Cunliffe
24 Nov
Located in the heart of the Congo, World Heritage-listed Garamba National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Africa. However, decades of abuse at the hands of rebel armies and commercial poaching gangs have decimated its once prolific herds. But an improvement in the local security situation has seen the park’s wildlife bounce back

Ratatat-tat-tat. The noise came as if in a dream. There were strange popping sounds all around us and I couldn’t work out what was going on. The windscreen exploded. I could see blood every­where. Suddenly, I realised: we had driven into an LRA ambush.’

It was 10 February 2009, and Paul Fredrick Ogutu Onyango was with a mixed group of rangers and soldiers investigating a report that guerrillas from the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army were hiding close to the southern boundary of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). ‘The vehicle picked me up last, so I was sitting on the back, and that saved my life,’ Onyango says.

Once he realised what was happening, Onyango dived off the back of the Land Cruiser, rolled across the road and used his FN Browning rifle to lay down covering fire while his fellow rangers and soldiers escaped from the bullet-riddled vehicle. A quietly spoken but engaging Kenyan, Onyango had been employed to train and lead a force of Congolese Wildlife Authority (ICCN) rangers as they endeavoured to re-establish control of the park. His 22 years of experience with the Kenyan Wildlife Service included extensive para­military training and a six-year stint with an anti-banditry unit operating on the Somali border, and as the battle raged, he remained calm.

Garamba 103Heavily armed rangers prepare for a patrol in Garamba’s volatile northern sector (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

During a pause in the shooting, Onyango crept back to the vehicle to check for survivors. ‘In the front of the vehicle, I found the driver with the warden next to him and both were dead, but the army captain was still alive,’ he says. ‘There were also four women and children [who had hitched a lift] hiding under the vehicle and their crying and screaming was really bad for our morale. I moved them, along with the wounded captain, behind a large termite mound. The captain had been shot in the head but, miraculously, he was still alive. Over and over, he kept telling me, “Paul take my Thuraya [satellite phone] and call for reinforcements.” I tried, but it was so full of blood that I couldn’t even get it to switch on.’

After 40 minutes of intense fighting, Onyango was one of only four men still repelling the attack. Five soldiers had run away during the initial contact, six were injured and four were dead. Against all odds, they managed to hold out until reinforcements eventually arrived an hour later.

Back at the small clinic at the park headquarters, the local doctor removed two bullets from Onyango’s stomach. The rounds had passed through the rifle stock before they hit him, and as a result, his wounds weren’t life-threatening.

Perhaps surprisingly, even after this experience, Onyango opted to continue his work in the park. ‘When I came to Garamba, I was only supposed to stay six weeks, but when my contract expired, I told my employers that I had not yet accomplished my mission,’ he says. ‘The guys I was training were still raw and not yet ready for the challenges of anti-poaching work in such an unforgiving environment, so I chose to remain in Garamba and finish the job.’

Garamba 098A ranger heads out on an anti-poaching patrol (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

jewel in the crown

Located adjacent to the Sudanese border in the northeastern corner of the DRC, Garamba was established by Belgian royal decree in 1938. The park is enclosed by three domaines de chasse (hunting reserves) – Mondo Missa, Gangala-na-Bodio and Azande – to the east, south and west respectively, which together form the 12,427-square-kilometre Garamba complex.

The southern part of the park is predominantly grassland savannah with scattered trees, blending into mixed woodland, dense dry forests and riverine and small swamp forests in the north. In contrast, the hunting areas are predominantly dense bush savannahs, mixed woodlands and forests.

Garamba has long been considered the jewel in the crown of Central Africa’s parks, but after the country gained independence from Belgium in 1960, the incoming government was ill-equipped to deal with a sudden upsurge in poaching, as a succession of commercial poaching gangs, guerrilla armies and destitute refugees plundered the park.

During the 1970s and ’80s, commercial Sudanese poachers joined the fray, drastically reducing numbers of elephants and white rhinoceroses in particular. Rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army perpetuated the poaching epidemic throughout the 1990s, and heavily armed Maharaleen (Arab horseman from Sudan) continued the rout when they arrived in 2003.

Elephant numbers plummeted, and the northern subspecies of white rhino hovered on the brink of extinction. By 2004, fewer than 20 of the latter remained in Garamba: the last hope for the subspecies in the wild.

Garamba 099Rangers measure and weigh the ivory stockpile stored at the park headquarters (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

Throughout this torrid time, ill-disciplined Congolese soldiers further contributed to the demise of large mammals within the park, as they supplemented their salaries by illegally harvesting ivory and selling bush meat.

The most recent perpetrators of regional instability were the LRA, a violent guerrilla group that fought a two-decade insurgency in northern Uganda before retreating to the DRC in October 2005. They established a base in the Azande Hunting Reserve on the periphery of the national park, from which they waged a typically brutal campaign against the local Congolese people.

This reign of terror continued until the Ugandan army, together with the armies of the DRC and South Sudan, launched Operation Lightning Thunder. The joint military offensive commenced on 14 December 2008 with a co-ordinated attack against rebel positions along Garamba’s western boundary.

Unfortunately, the LRA refused to go quietly. Instead, its members sought retribution against soft targets in the surrounding area, including villages and the park headquarters at Nagero, which they attacked on 2 January 2009.

A fierce battle ensued, and ten park employees (including three rangers) were killed, with many more wounded. The rebels burned buildings, fuel stores, communications equipment, generators, two ultra-light aircraft, a truck and several patrol motorbikes. Only the timely arrival of a large detachment of Congolese soldiers forced the LRA to withdraw and prevented the wholesale destruction of Nagero.

Garamba 083Each spring, northern carmine bee-eaters gather to nest in the banks fo the Dungu River (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

huge setback

Arriving 18 months after this attack, I find the park authorities still struggling to overcome this huge setback. ‘In 2008, the situation in Garamba deteriorated dramatically, and access to the park was all but forbidden,’ Luis Arranz, head of the African Parks project in Garamba, explains as we drive to the recently opened Garamba Guest Lodge. ‘With the LRA firmly entrenched in the Azande Hunting Reserve, Garamba was largely a no-go zone, even for our rangers. But with the recent demise of the LRA, the volatile security situation in the region has finally stabilised, and the park has reverted to our control. Nagero and the southern sector of the park are once again safe and we’re making good headway with reining in Garamba’s poaching pandemic, although we still face some big challenges.

‘Garamba is located in one of the most remote places on the continent,’ Arranz continues. ‘Combine this with a derelict road network, and logistics become extremely complicated and hellishly expensive. It has taken us a full year just to replace what we lost during the LRA attack.’

I ask Arranz whether the poaching situation has improved now that the rebel army has been evicted. ‘The area is far more stable and secure without the LRA, but poaching is a complex issue,’ he replies. ‘I think the Congolese soldiers are worse poachers than the LRA or even the Maharaleen ever were.’

With illegal gold and diamond mining in the surrounding hunting reserves also of growing concern, there’s no doubt that Arranz and his team have their work cut out in Garamba, but he remains positive. ‘These challenges are not insurmountable, and now is the crucial moment for us to save this park,’ he says. ‘As you explore the area during the coming days, you will be amazed at just how much wildlife still survives here. Garamba is a resilient place that can bounce back, given half a chance.’

Garamba 022Black and white colobus monkeys are often sighted near the park headquarters (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

helping hand

Garamba’s revival is being co-ordinated by the African Parks Network (APN), a not-for-profit company that manages valuable conservation areas on behalf of African governments that lack the financial resources and technical expertise to do so themselves.

‘In September 2005, APN arrived in Garamba at the invitation of the ICCN,’ explains Nuria Ortega, Garamba’s tourism, marketing and public relations co-ordinator as we sip beers on the veranda of the new Garamba Guest Lodge. ‘After signing a long-term management agreement with the ICCN, APN assumed total responsibility for the rehabilitation and management of the entire Garamba complex.’

Generous funding from the EU, as well as a Spanish cooperation grant, has enabled APN to make real headway with effectively managing and developing the park. ‘The ongoing recruitment and training of rangers has been a focal point, and this has helped to secure the park and get a handle on poaching,’ Ortega tells me. ‘The neglected road network and decaying tourism infrastructure are also in the process of being upgraded, but getting this guest lodge completed has been my obsession for the past 15 months.’

The lodge, which boasts some of the most lavish and attractive tourist facilities in Central Africa, was inaugurated in May last year. It features ten double bungalows, a well-appointed restaurant and the aforementioned veranda, on which you can relax on comfortable sofas and listen to the hippos honking in the Dungu River below.

Garamba 094A quintessential African sunset (Image: Stephen Cunliffe)

harsh reality

Early the next morning, I join APN pilot Stéphane Carre for a dawn jaunt over the park’s gently undulating savannas. After all the talk of poaching, I’m not expecting to see a great deal, but it isn’t long before my expectations are being challenged, as we fly over herd after herd of buffalo and elephant. We even spot a handsome pair of male lions relaxing beside the Dungu River, which is itself littered with the distinctive pink blobs of hippo; I estimate in excess of 150 hippos in one particu-larly large pod.

Back at the lodge, Arranz tempers my excitement at the amount of wildlife I observed by explaining the harsh reality of what the park has experienced. ‘Garamba was the final wild refuge of the critically endangered northern white rhino,’ he explains. ‘During the 1950s, the park was home to between 40,000 and 60,000 elephants, and in excess of 1,000 rhinos. Today, the rhinos are gone – the last one disappeared in 2007 – and the elephants have been reduced to fewer than 4,000. But Garamba’s nutritious grasslands could actually support ten times the current elephant population.’

Before this year, there hadn’t been any regular anti-poaching patrols north of the Garamba River in almost 15 years; the northern sector of the park was all but abandoned. However, since March last year, patrols have started to cross the river again and begun the arduous task of wresting back control of the northern sector. And the first aerial reconnaissance of the north in decades, carried out during June last year, revealed surprisingly healthy populations of a number of large mammals.

Garamba’s wildlife has suffered decades of abuse, but with the demise of the LRA, the withdrawal of Congolese military forces from the park, and the timely arrival of APN, Garamba appears to have finally turned the corner and embarked on the long road to recovery.

This article was originally published in the February 2011 edition of Geographical magazine.

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