- While out patrolling on April 11, Ari and Afokao heard gunshots.
- The patrol unit followed signs and tracks until they discovered a group of six poachers who were cutting up a freshly slaughtered elephant carcass.
- A shootout followed, in which both Ari and Afokao were fatally shot.
Elephant poachers have killed two wildlife rangers in a shootout in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), reports African Parks, a not-for-profit conservation group that manages ten protected areas across Africa in partnership with governments and local communities.
While out patrolling on April 11, Ranger Joël Meriko Ari and Sergeant Gerome Bolimola Afokao of the DRC Armed Forces heard gunshots, African Parks reported. The patrol unit followed signs and tracks until they discovered a group of six poachers who were chopping up a freshly slaughtered elephant carcass.
A shootout followed, in which both Ari and Afokao were fatally shot. There were also casualties among the poachers, but details were not disclosed.
Ari, 27, leaves behind a wife and two sons, while Afokao leaves behind a wife and nine children.
African Parks said that they had observed “significant poaching activity” during the days preceding the shootout. Aerial surveillance had identified the poachers’ camp, and they had recorded carcasses of nine elephants.
“IUCN deplores the deaths of rangers Joël Meriko Ari and Sergent Bolimola Afokao of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo…and shares its most profound condolences with their families,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a statement.
Garamba National Park, located in northeastern DRC, is one of Africa’s older national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was home to the last known wild population of the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), now believed to be extinct in the wild. The park also hosts the rare Kordofan giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum), and elephants — both forest elephants and savanna elephants as well as hybrid of the two.
Garamba — once teeming with wildlife — is now a hotbed for armed poachers and guerrilla groups seeking ivory. In 2012, for example, poachers shot and killed 22 elephants, including babies, likely from a helicopter. Then, in 2014, poachers killed 68 elephants in the park in a span of just two months. The park is now estimated to have fewer than 2,000 elephants, down from 20,000 in the 1960s.
Garamba has also been plagued by violence against conservation workers. Last year, poachers shot five wildlife rangers in the park, killing three. In 2015, five rangers and three members of the Congolese Armed Forces are believed to have been killed by poachers in three incidents, according to African parks.
Thomas Nicolon, a wildlife photojournalist who is in the midst of a project to photograph all of DRC’s national parks, was on assignment for Mongabay in Garamba earlier this month.
“While in Garamba, I remember asking several park rangers if they were sometimes afraid while doing their job, knowing that armed poachers can be anywhere, anytime — and that many co-workers had been killed before,” Nicolon said of his time there. He said the answer was always the same: “I’m not afraid. I have a weapon. If they open fire, I can defend myself.”
Nicolon also spent a week in Kahuzi-Biega National Park for his project, where a ranger was killed by armed bandits less than 24 hours after he departed. He describes DRC rangers as “fearless, dedicated.” He added that when he asked about their pay, one ranger responded that, “The most important thing is to protect the animals of this part — money comes next.”
During his one week at Garamba, Nicolon was constantly under the protection of rangers.
“It is with great sadness that I heard that two of them got killed a few days after I left the park,” he said. “Congolese park rangers do not earn big money. They’re not famous donors who give millions to conservation. They give their lives instead. They’re the unsung heroes of conservation.”
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Correction (04/25/2017 8:40pm): the original version of this story incorrectly stated that the Garamba National Park is home to the last wild population of the northern white rhinos. This rhino subspecies is, in fact, now believed to be extinct in the wild. We have corrected the sentence, and we regret the error.