Africa's Rebels Turn to Ivory Trade

The demand for ivory has increased worldwide. Rebel groups in central Africa have joined the trade.They are killing elephants and sell their tusks to get money for better weapons.

"Poaching and the potential connections to other criminal and terrorist activities are a serious threat to peace and security in Central Africa," says UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The UN chief noted that the poachers are using stronger and better weapons to kill elephants.

Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel outfit known by its acronym, LRA, is one of those groups that have used the yields from illegal ivory trade to finance their activities.

According to UN figures, the LRA has killed more than 100,000 people in Central Africa over the past 25 years. The fighters also abducted between 60,000-100,000 children in order to recruit them as child soldiers.

It is considered as one of the most brutal rebel groups in the world. Its leader, Joseph Kony, is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The LRA is still active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Sudan and in the Central African Republic.

According to analysts, the group previously received its funds from the government of Sudan - but that support has diminished because of international pressure. In search of new capital sources, the group has turned to poaching.

Rebel LRA attack in the National Park

The first clash with the rebels in the Garamba National Park, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo was a shock for Luis Arranz, the park's manager.

"In January 2009, a 180 -strong group of LRA fighters attacked our headquarters. We lost 17 of our staff, all killed by the LRA." said Arranz.

The attack on the headquarters was not the last clash between the LRA and Arranz and his rangers.

The rebels initially used the enormous park as a retreat base, but have now turned it into a hunting ground for elephants, Arranz notes.

"We know as a matter of fact that the LRA killed at least 15 to 20 elephants last year," the park manager said. Presumably the rebel group could be responsible for many more kills.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) believes that up to 20 elephants were killed in the Garamba Park in a single day.

Ivory as a conflict commodity

African rebel groups have sold natural resources to finance their campaigns for years. In the 1990s, rebels in Sierra Leone sold the so-called "blood diamonds". In the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebels sell minerals to buy weapons and ammunition.

Ivory has also become one of the resources that finances conflict. In the early 80s, the Renamo rebel group in Mozambique started to participate in the illegal ivory trade.

According to WWF's Volker Homes, the funding of rebel groups by poaching is nothing new.

"This is a phenomenon that has been there for a long time, albeit on a much smaller scale," he told DW.

It is not only the LRA that is suspected of selling ivory. In Cameroon for example, Janjaweed militias from Sudan are hunting down elephants. In Kenya, al-Shabab militants from neighboring Somalia are known to do the same.

Garamba Park manager Luis Arranz points out that the fight against rebel groups such as the LRA is much more dangerous than against other poachers.

"They are much better organized and heavily armed," he said.

Poaching at its record high

According to the WWF, poaching has increased to a record high in Africa's national parks. In 2012 alone, 30,000 elephants were killed. Illegal ivory trade has once again become a thriving business.

"It is outrageous. Ivory is now used as an investment in parts of Asia. The price per kilo has risen again and now stands at several hundred euros," says Homes.

China's growing middle class is renowned for its love of expensive art objects and jewelry made of ivory. Powdered ivory is also said to have an aphrodisiac effect in Asia. This means that high demand and international restrictions on the ivory trade have created a lucrative black market.

Ivory is often transferred through countries such as Kenya or Tanzania to China. Countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines act as transit stations.

"It is carried in raised container floors masked as timber," said Homes.

Although the United States and the African Union have supported the hunt for the LRA, they have not been able to stop the group.

"I think the only way to deal with the group would be to come to the site and try to track it down," said park manager Arranz. Due to the lucrative ivory business, the LRA will probably remain in his park at least for more years to come.

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