Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty (National Geographic)
Though some feared the Rwandan genocide and decade-long civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had driven it to extinction, the rare Okapi still stalks World Heritage site Virunga National Park, according to the first ever photos of the animal in the wild, released yesterday.
A deer-like creature known for its zebra-like stripes, the okapi (pron. oh-cop-ee) is the closest living relative of the giraffe, with whom it shares a long blue tongue. It has a small bump in the corner of its head, a trait that once led to speculation that it was the inspiration for the unicorn. Okapi is so rare it itself was once thought to be mythical.
As a "blood" animal, the okapi is hardly alone. Though poaching and habitat loss are predominant threats, an untold number of vulnerable species have been effected by -- and effect -- war and politics.
Like global warming, the slaughter of animal species can no longer be simply seen as a long-term environmental issue, but as one that directly impacts security -- and leads to human atrocities. The Disappearance of the White Rhino
Take the northern white rhino. German artist Albrecht Dürer's famous 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros covered in armor (above) may have helped perpetuate the myth that rhinos are war-like animals, and even functional as military animals. But the rhino does not mix well with battle. Their "thick" or "plated" skin is actually quite sensitive and the animals have poor eyesight, limiting their ability to run in any particular direction.
That incidentally has made it easy for war-time poachers to kill them the rare northern species of the rhino around its lone wild habitat, the Garamba National Park, also in Congo. Located near the border with war-torn Sudan, the park has in recent years received visits from AK-47-toting men -- enterprising members of the janjaweed militias -- who kill the rhino for their valuable horns. The horns are sought after in Asia for their medicinal value, and in the Middle East, where they are turned into dagger handles.
Beyond "Blood" Diamonds
Although white rhinos are still abundant in South Africa, the northern white species (above) has not been seen in the wild since 2006. The Janjaweed militias however are still alive and kicking -- thanks in part to the guns and ammo they can buy with all of those animal parts.
"Earnings from the ivory trade is sustaining the Janjaweed," Michael Wamithi, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and now director of the elephant program for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Newsweek in March. "It's untraceable money," like the "blood diamonds" that bankrolled brutal wars in Sierra Leone.
Trafficking in rare animals has long been a high-stakes crime, and despite stronger efforts than ever, it's growing. Still, the connection between illegal profits from animal trafficking and terror is not one that's often been drawn. Until now.
Hart of Darkness
In March, the US Congress Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing over the issue.
There, John Hart, a conservationist who has worked in Congo for two decades described how during the country's recent civil war (1998 – 2003) -- said to be the most deadly conflict since World War II -- illegal bushmeat and ivory were among commodities exchanged for arms and ammunition.
Elephant poachers caught in 2007 in the Virunga National Park
A three-year investigation, Hart said, "documented an estimated 14 tons of ivory leaving the area of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve," some of it loaded directly onto international helicopters chartered by the Congolese rebels. Meanwhile, according to investigations done by a Belgian journalist, Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer wanted by Interpol, was operating in the region at the time, and ivory was among the commodities Bout traded and trafficked.
According to Hart, a number of other militia groups operating in Congo have a bad poaching habit. These include the Rwandan Hutu rebels implicated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a major group of whom remain based in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and factions of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, who retained bases in Congo's Garamba National Park during their ongoing standoff with the Ugandan government.
Guerrilla vs. Gorilla
A baby gorilla orphaned by Congolese soldiers last year
In 2007, ten gorillaswere gunned down in cold blood at Virunga National Park (the home of the okapi) apparently as a way to deter park officials from shutting down the illegal trade of charcoal. In August, members of the FDLR, Hutu extremists tied to the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, killed two elephants in the park before being fought off by park rangers.
It was only the latest in a string of attacks that have also left park officials dead.
According to the ICCN, the Congolese conservation service, in the past decade more than 110 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty—the majority shot not by poachers, but by militias.
Of course, the atrocities committed on animals in Congo by these near-nihilist soldiers do not compare to those being done on humans -- atrocities funded in part by poaching. In a gripping July National Geographic piece Mark Jenkins describes the handiwork of the militias in the blood-soaked Congolese province of North Kivu, where
gangs of barely paid soldiers armed with machine guns (grotesquely referred to as the "AK credit card") have taken whatever they want, whenever they want, from whomever they want. Tens of thousands of women and girls as young as five have been raped, some gang-raped by Congolese or FDLR soldiers and then, when their village was retaken by Nkunda's soldiers, raped again. Scores of innocent people have been tortured, hundreds of civilians shot to death, and more than 800,000 people forced to flee their homes, only to become starving refugees in their own country. North Kivu is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive.
Animal Trade and Terrorism
While the State Department and some members of Congress suspect a link between illegal wildlife trafficking and terrorism, evidence remains "anecdotal." "But with the amount of money it would provide terrorist groups, even anecdotes are a huge cause for concern," Claudia McMurray, assistant secretary of State, also told Newsweek.
One likely beneficiary of illegal wildlife sales are separatist groups and Islamic militants based in Bangladesh. Indian officials suspect them of supporting the poaching of tigers, rhinos, elephants and other vanishing species in India's Kaziranga National Park to support terrorist activities.
Ivory, the trade of which was banned in 1989, is now the most commonly traded illegal animal good, going for about $400 per pound on the black market. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and IUCN, reports that while the number of seizures of ivory has remained relatively stable since the 1990s, the size of the seizures has grown significantly. The number of seizures of more than a ton of ivory increased from 17 between 1989 and 1997 to 32 between 1998 and 2006. In the latter year, 20 tons of ivory were smuggled into Asia, more than double seen in previous years.
No country buys more ivory than China. In recent years, the government of China has made significant headway in seizing illegal shipments of ivory, a development that helped China win the right in July to buy ivory from African countries in a one-time sale of old stockpiles. While China argued that this would be an effective and legal way to maintain precious supplies of ivory -- often used in traditional arts -- many critics point out that the sale will only exacerbate the problem, driving up demand and leading to more poaching.
Okapi, caught on camera
For the okapi, of which there may be 200 remaining at the national park, preservation work will be limited by ongoing civil conflict poor political and physical infrastructure. According to the Zoological Society of London, which launched the okapi finding mission, okapi meat, reportedly from the Park, is now regularly on sale in the nearby town of Beni. They warn that if hunting continues at this rate, okapi could become extinct in the Park within a few years.
Another threat to animals like okapi may be the same sort of nationalism that breeds conflict. As a New York Times piece from 2005 points out, attempts to move the white rhino to safer ground in Kenya failed as Congolese officials and citizens insisted the rhino was a national symbol, dead or alive.
For now, the bigger danger to okapi is its poaching, and the militia violence that's fueled by the deaths of other marketable animals.
Ultimately, even if conflict were to stop in Congo, conservationists would face a harsh legacy of war and another uphill battle: a deeply entrenched system of corruption that keeps the poachers in business. The military is known for supporting poachers, some of whom come directly from the militia gangs the government is trying to reform.
The disappearance of these traded animals caught up in wars isn't just a case of endangered animals. It threatens all of us.
But the role that animals play in human conflict -- both as victims and as currency -- is also in our hands.
That's because so many of the goods made from these animal parts are sold to consumers like us across the globe.
After China, the biggest market for illegal animal products is the U.S.
I heartily welcome comments about and ideas for stopping the cycle of animal and human violence.
More on Poaching
National Geographic: "Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas?"
Newsweek: Extinction Trade
Wildlife Direct: Virunga National Park Blog
ICCN website (French)
World Resources Institute: Illegal Animal Trade Finances War in Africa
War and Politics Threaten Congo's Endangered Rhinos
Searchable Database: Trade in Species, by Country
More photos of the okapi at ZSL's site
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