How many animals die is better documented than the deaths of African rangers
Jules Kombi Kambale, a ranger for the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature since 2013, assigned to protecting gorillas from poachers in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo, was on September 1, 2016 killed in action near the Gatovu ranger post.
$30/month from the Fallen Ranger Fund
Kambale left behind his wife, five months pregnant, who may receive a stipend worth about $30 a month in U.S. dollars from the Virunga Fallen Ranger Fund.
Founded in 2007 by Virunga National Park director Emmanuel de Mérode, who was himself wounded on the job in 2014, the Virunga Fallen Ranger Fund has thus far identified 131 ranger widows and their families. Most were left destitute by the loss of the young men who often supported not only their own wives and children, but also contributed to the support and education of their parents and siblings.
Altogether, about 150 rangers are believed to have been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone since the region descended into lawlessness and bush war in 1991.
Ironically, though, more is known about the numbers of gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, and rhinos living and dead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other nations engulfed in poaching wars than about the casualties among the often poorly paid and equipped men and women who have volunteered to defend the animals.
Among the other recent reported dead were Michel Katungu, a 25-year veteran of Virunga National Park duty, reassigned in 2014 to a presumably safer job guarding suspected poachers and insurgents at the Rumangabo park headquarters jail. Katungu was killed on July 29, 2016, when “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” militia shot at a vehicle that was transporting some of the prisoners to the city of Goma to await trial.
Having little to do with any actual concept of democracy or liberation, the “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” are descended from the Hutu tribal militias who in 1993-1994 massacred from 500,000 to a million Tutsi tribe members in Burundi and Rwanda. Eventually rousted from Burundi and Rwanda, they have persisted in the bush ever since, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making occasional incursions into Uganda, the Central African Republic, and Tanzania.
Other rangers recently killed in Virunga have included Assani Sebuyori, gunned down by unknown assailants near Lulimbi in June 2016; Venant Mumbere Muvesevese, 35, a ranger squad leader from Mbingi, Lubero, killed by Mai-Mai rebels in March 2016, leaving behind his wife Jeanne and four children; Fidèle Mulonga Mulegalega, 25, captured with Muvesevese by the Mai-Mai and then “summarily executed,” according to Guardian environmental reporter John Vidal; Sebinyenzi Bavukirahe Yacinthe, 40, killed by poachers on January 23, 2016, leaving his wife Jeaninne, and eight children; and Jean Claude Kiza Vunabandi, 32, killed on October 26, 2015, leaving his wife Aimée, two children, and his dependent parents.
Muvesevese and Mulegalega “were killed in situations that might amount to war crimes in any other conflict,” Mérode told Vidal.
State of armed conflict
“We have a state of armed conflict,” Mérode explained, “a low-intensity war being fought over the exploitation of natural resources in the park. For the rangers it is not impossible to work, but it is now very dangerous. We are training 100 new rangers now and there will be 120 more next year. We are still very committed and optimistic.”
The killings of Kambale, Katangu, Muvesevese, Mulegalega, Yacinthe, and Vunabandi, along with the circumstances of their deaths, have received some media notice. Most have not.
As many as 16 rangers have been killed in Virunga National Park alone in less than two years, most as anonymously as Unknown Soldiers, fighting the wildlife poaching and trafficking arms of stateless militias.
A who’s who of bad guys
The roster of enemies includes, besides the so-called “Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda” and the Mai-Mai, Boko Haram, the Janjaweed, al-Shabaab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Representing a spectrum of African ethnic groups and political and religious idologies, what they have in common is that they trade poached wildlife parts for the weapons and food they need to remain in the bush, fighting endless wars amounting to little more than the ongoing struggle for survival, after having established reputations so murderous as to have no place in any civilized society.
Battle for wildlife
Garamba National Park and Kahuzi-Biéga Park, also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have experienced comparable wildlife and human casualties.
“The battle for central Africa’s wildlife has exploded as heavily armed militia target elephants and rhino and gun down anyone trying to protect them,” Vidal wrote.
“There were more than 30 shootouts, five ranger deaths, several woundings and 43 elephants killed [in the first four months of 2016] in Garamba,” Vidal recounted.
Garamba National Park manager Erik Mararv, a Swedish citizen, was wounded by gunfire.
While rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are now much better trained and equipped than they were a decade ago and longer, increased firepower and better training has only helped to a degree.
“The five rangers shot in Garamba were working for African Parks,” Vidal explained, “a Johannesburg-based nonprofit conservation group that sends South African and other military officials to train rangers in the 10 wildlife parks it manages on behalf of governments.”
In effect, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African governments are contracting with foreign mercenaries operating under nonprofit flags to help them fight other foreign mercenaries whose financiers are able to throw at least as much money into the fight.
“Much of the most serious poaching is believed to start in Sudan,” Vidal said, “where militias linked to the Darfur genocide in the 1990s have begun to fund their operations by killing wildlife in countries as far afield as Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the northern DRC.
“One reason for Sudanese involvement,” Vidal explained, “is said to be the militias’ access to Chinese entrepreneurs who have flooded into the region,” who “can export with impunity to insatiable markets in Asia. Equally,” Vidal said, Somalian militia groups who are beyond the control of governments can easily ship ivory and rhino horn.”
The armed conflict, while bloodiest in central Africa, claims wildlife protector casualties in other regions as well.
Among the first deaths in defense of animals reported in 2016 was that of former British accountant Roger Gower, who retrained as a helicopter pilot in 2004. Employed by the Friedkin Conservation Fund, Gower was shot down while tracking poachers who had just killed three elephants in the Maswa Game Reserve of Tanzania.
In Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, father and son Claudio Chiarelli and Max Chiarelli, both professional hunting guides probably responsible for as many animal deaths as the poachers they were helping to fight, “died instantly” on March 13, 2016 “when caught in the mistaken fire of a National Parks patrol of three rangers,” reported the Zambezi Society, a Harare-based hunter-conservationist advocacy group formed in 1982.
“Claudio and Max, together with Francesco Marconati,” like the Chiarellis a Zimbabwean citizen of Italian descent, “were providing voluntary support to deploy two National Parks anti-poaching patrols consisting of six rangers,” the Zambezi Society account said.
The six rangers were to relieve the three rangers who had already been in the field for nearly seven hours, “following fresh spoor of poachers. The group had parked their vehicle on the side of the road in the middle section of the Mana Pools National Park,” the Zambezi Society account continued.
The six rangers the Chiarellis and Marconati had transported sat down nearby, while the Chiarellis and Marconati lifted the hood of their vehicle to “inspect the engine. Unknown to them,” the Zambezi Society said, they had “parked within just 15 meters of where the poachers’ tracks had crossed the road.
“Meanwhile, the anti-poaching patrol in hot pursuit heard voices, crouched down, and slowly moved forward through the thick undergrowth. Through a gap in the bushes, they saw part of a blue shirt. They assumed this was a poacher and let off a burst of gunfire.”
“Always verify your target” is as much a fundamental rule for wildlife rangers as for hunters, soldiers, and police officers.
But the rule is often neglected when the possible target might shoot back.