During a recent trip to the park to photograph the giraffes, while being captivated by their tracks D’haen pointed out that the most interesting thing to look for was actually overhead: “Look at that,” he said. “This track is right under a medium-sized tree. How could that giraffe even walk here?”

Such habitat characteristics could be part of the reason why giraffes have never thrived in this part of Africa. It’s not for lack of trying.

During D’haen’s 6 months in the field in Garamba, he has discovered that Kordofan giraffes have a vast home range.

“I was intrigued by what the GPS collar’s signal showed: these giraffes travel quite a lot,” he said. That makes sense considering that they have to cover large distances to find acacia. Because the food supply is sparse, the average giraffe herd size is quite small here — to avoid feeding competition. But small herd size means they’re more vulnerable to predators: giraffes are preyed on more by lions and hyenas than previously thought, an additional factor behind their low population in Garamba.

Poaching

Poaching, however, is the most serious threat to the giraffes in Garamba these days. For a long time, poachers did not target giraffes.

“According to a local belief, eating giraffe meat causes leprosy, which is why they used to be spared,” says Kate Spies, research and monitoring manager for African Parks, the conservation NGO that manages Garamba in partnership with the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN).

Not so anymore. Now giraffes have joined elephants and other wildlife as prime targets for poachers.

The rangers of Garamba (their exact numbers can’t be listed for security reasons) are part of the African Parks team, a non-profit conservation organization with the largest ranger force of any one NGO across Africa — with over 850 on staff. It partners with governments and local communities to manage the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks. African Parks manages 10 national parks and protected areas in seven countries covering six million hectares including DRC, Malawi, Zambia, Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Chad.

A park ranger on patrol in Garamba National Park in DRC. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.
A park ranger on patrol in Garamba National Park in DRC. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

Despite the backbreaking work of the rangers, the advent of poaching in the last two decades has devastated the giraffe’s numbers, which have more than halved from over 100 in 2008. All giraffe species and subspecies have moved from “least concern” to “vulnerable” in the IUCN Red List of threatened species since 2016. New population surveys estimate an overall 36-40 percent decline from 1985 to 2015.

Garamba is situated in one of the most hostile areas in Africa, crawling with heavily armed poachers and various rebel groups. Although rangers with African Parks do much to secure the area, roaming the park remains risky. Several armed park rangers must be around scientists — and journalists — at all times. Which explains why obtaining the authorization to do journalistic work in Garamba is a complicated process: the team needs to make sure that someone will be available 24/7 to take care of the visitor.

While there are local poachers who mostly hunt for hippo, buffalo and sometimes elephant, South Sudanese poachers pose the greatest challenge. They are highly armed and look exclusively for ivory, which is a goldmine for them. They operate in the north of Garamba, close to the border with South Sudan.

“They’re the biggest threat,” says Pascal Anguezi, head of the anti-poaching unit for the park. “They’re wreaking havoc among wildlife.”

A Kordofan giraffe in DRC's Garamba National Park. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.
A Kordofan giraffe in DRC’s Garamba National Park. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

It doesn’t stop there. Huda and Mbororo are livestock farming groups that travelled all the way from Libya, Chad or Cameroon in search of pasture. They represent a growing threat, too. Some still dedicate their lives to farming, but many have turned to the lucrative poaching business.

One group in particular makes the park rangers’ blood run cold: Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA. The Ugandan guerilla group uses the park as a sanctuary. In 2009, Kony’s men attacked Garamba’s Nagero station. At least eight people died, including park rangers and two conservationists’ wives. Another 13 were wounded. Many buildings were destroyed and fuel and rangers’ rations were looted.

Poachers regularly target the park’s wildlife, but they don’t hesitate to shoot park rangers either. “We’ve had three clashes with poachers in the last 10 days,” Anguezi says. “Luckily no one got killed.”

They’re not always so lucky. Days after Anguezi’s statement, on April 11 two rangers were killed by elephant poachers. Last year in April 2016, Garamba’s operation manager Erick Mararv and several rangers were caught in an ambush as they approached an elephant carcass. Poachers shot Mararv in the leg, wounded two rangers, and killed three more rangers. African parks gives family members of victims an amount equal to six times their annual salary plus any funds raised by donor campaigns.

“It was hard,” Mararv says, “but I never thought of taking it slow.” He often pauses, his deep blue eyes lost in some kind of earthly reverie: “Doing what we do, these things can happen every day.”

High price

Poachers also get killed during clashes.

“Everybody loses: the poachers, the rangers and the elephants,” Mararv says. “The only winner is the Asian consumer, in a safe place, thousands of kilometers away. The poachers are just the products of this system. They’re trying to provide a decent life to their families.”

A single giraffe can produce up to 660 pounds of meat. Poachers can then sell it at around $35 per pound to surrounding villages. That’s quite an attractive price, considering that DRC is one of the poorest countries on the planet, with a GDP per capita at about d $456 in 2015, according to the World Bank.

The landscape of Garamba National Park in DRC. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.
The landscape of Garamba National Park in DRC. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

Anti-poaching efforts by African Parks Network, which arrived to support the ICCN in 2005, are starting to pay off. That’s largely down to the rangers, who all receive focused, professional training from former members of the military from the UK, South Africa and France. Rangers learn how to detect the presence of poachers, track them down, and neutralize them.

Truth be told, Garamba’s station in Nagero looks more like a military base than a conservation haven.

“It’s important to have this military organization,” Anguezi says. “We have no other option, knowing the context of this park.”

It works: Garamba is losing fewer animals than before.

Kate Spies is the research and monitoring manager. She says there has been a “huge improvement in anti-poaching in the past year.” The last evidence of poached giraffes dates back to April 2016. The ICCN also praises African Parks.

“African Parks brings the means and the expertise, while we have the field knowledge, which is crucial,” says El Hadji Somba Byombo, Garamba’s deputy director.

El Hadji would know. Back in 2012, he was deputy director of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, 300 miles south of Garamba. One hot summer night, rebel leader Morgan and his men came out of the Ituri forest and opened fire on the station. Several rangers were killed and their wives were burned alive. All 16 captive okapis – one of the most elusive mammals on the planet – were killed too. El Hadji fired back before hiding in his bathroom and then disappeared into the woods.

“I came upon a few rangers who had run away,” El Hadji says. “We held each other for a long time. We walked all night long, and found help at a small village on the next day.” This is what conservation looks like in DRC. Protecting wildlife is a matter of life and death, literally. Field knowledge à la congolaise.

Optimism

In spite of Garamba’s complex location and issues and security problems, the staff is optimistic.

“African Parks’ approach is different,” says Mararv. “The aim is not only to protect the animals but also work with the communities around the park, through a hydroelectric plant or agricultural projects, in order to develop the region’s commercial activity. People must understand that the park is actually their best shot at a better life. It can bring so much.”

He’s convinced that the potential introduction of Southern white rhino will be conceivable in a few years’ time.

The same aspiration exists across DRC, where decades of war have prevented scientific research from flourishing. Yet, hopefulness persists.

“I’m optimistic,” D’haen says, as we talk under the Milky Way at historic research station Gangala na Bodio. “Giraffes have a chance of increasing, and so do the other species. This region is vastly understudied. Working here is like opening the box of Pandora. There’s so much to see, and yet to discover.”

Banner image: A recent photo of Kordofan giraffes in Garamba National Park in DRC. Photo by Thomas Nicolon for Mongabay.

Thomas Nicolon is a freelance journalist and photographer based in DRC. You can find him on Instagram at Thomas.Nicolon.

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