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Conservation and security in central Africa - summary of a workshop on 13 October

Law enforcement patrols, Zakouma Park, Chad (African Parks/Babi Prokas)
Law enforcement patrols, Zakouma Park, Chad (African Parks/Babi Prokas)

In the lawless border region of South Sudan, northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR), vast wilderness areas and national parks are at the frontline of a vicious battle for resources.

For the past decade, people who live and work in protected areas in the region – many of them supported by funding from EU International Cooperation and Development - have experienced increasingly violent attacks, poaching incidents and incursions by heavily armed rebel militia. The inhabitants of remote villages, park staff and the species and habitats they work to protect are caught in the crossfire.

In response to an appeal from park managers, the EU hosted a workshop on 13 October to reflect on how to deliver conservation and security and to help rebuild a stable economy in what is effectively a war zone. Representatives from EU institutions, the US government and other donor organisations attended the workshop to hear at first hand from park staff working in Chad, CAR, DRC and South Sudan, and other organisations active in security, human welfare, anti-corruption and humanitarian aid in the region.

Main threats to security and wildlife

The park managers outlined the main threats to wildlife and security in the areas they manage. Their experience of the main threats was broadly similar.

Increasing numbers of cattle herders are encroaching on protected areas. Herds are being driven into DRC from Sudan, where it is now too dry to sustain them, and into northern CAR from southern Chad, where the Lake Chad basin is shrinking. The vast herds are managed for wealthy individuals by herders armed with AK47s, grenades and even rocket launchers. They send teams of armed pastoralists ahead to burn vegetation so that the arrival of cattle coincides with the growth of nitrogen-rich pasture.  “This is not traditional pastoralism,”says Naftali Honig of Garamba Park, DRC.

In the Chinko nature reserve (CAR), herders hunt local wildlife for food and to dry the meat to take back to Sudan, contributing to the illegal wild meat trade. They also poison predators such as lions, attack villages for supplies and steal local people’s cattle. This leads to conflicts between herders and local farmers. “They are completely de-stabilising the region. In 2010, there was no cattle in the area; in 2011, there was some; and in 2012, the numbers went through the roof,” according to David Simpson of the Chinko Project in CAR.

Wildlife poaching - Elephant populations in central Africa are being decimated, killed for their ivory tusks, which are trafficked into Sudan and for destinations further afield. Poachers are well armed and ruthless; many are rebel militia groups who trade the ivory they poach for munitions. In South Sudan, which has known just seven years peace in the past 40 years, the elephant population has plummeted from 80 000 to 2 500.

In Garamba National Park, eight rangers were killed in three separate incidents in 2015, and 107 elephants killed. Sudanese poachers are thought be responsible.  The world's last remaining wild-living white rhinos were lost in the park between 2008 and 2010, also due to Sudanese poachers.

Ongoing armed conflict in South Sudan impacts neighbouring countries and threaten populations and conservation activities. Heavily armed exiled rebel groups have been found hiding in the thick forest cover in Garamba Park in DRC.

Armed rebel groups* and poachers are also involved in other extractive activities in protected areas, such as artisanal mining of diamonds and gold, drug trafficking, and illegal logging and charcoal production. All these activities fuel insecurity and weaken governance.

Responses that work

Field staff from the region identified a number of practices that have proven successful.

Joining forces with community against common enemy

Good relations with local communities are key to intelligence gathering in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Park director Rian Labuschagne explained how rangers followed a trail of a poaching attack back to the CAR through villages. They then worked with the villages on the poachers’ route, set up a school, employed a teacher, established an airstrip and provided a VHF radio. They now employ someone in the village who is in direct contact with the park’s radio room.  The villages get the benefit of education for pre-school children, and are pleased to have regular contact with a trusted authority to which they can report illegal activities. The network of airstrips can also be used to meet local needs, for example, for medical evacuations.

Invisible Children’s Early Warning Network provides a similar, but much more extensive, service. The NGO, which exists to combat the violence and abductions of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), provides radios to villages in DRC to report on LRA movements. Communities patch in to the network twice a day to inform each other of possible threats, poaching activities, LRA defectors, and LRA harassment of women. This allows them to develop contingency planning, such as avoiding certain routes, fields and so on. Invisible Children also collects the information to report up the chain and inform senior government officials in the US.

The Bili-Uélé complex of protected areas in DRC, managed by the Africa Wildlife Foundation, also works closely with local communities. Local people had approached the managers to help protect them from violent attacks. They had called for help, not for the protection of chimpanzees but for the security of the local area. Since February 2015, 20-30 rangers have been selected and trained from the local community. Informing local people and herders about the protected area and its boundaries and bringing together local stakeholders – including civil society – has helped to identify common goals and gain buy-in on related issues of security, development and conservation.

Focus on areas that can be secured

Chinko reserve's management are realistic about what they can secure, given the threat and their available resources. They currently concentrate the ranger force and wildlife as far as possible within a 1 000 km2 area, rather than the park’s full 18 000 km2.

“Chinko is not just conservation; the same people who are killing animals are killing people in the village," said  David Simpson, general manager. "Chinko is stabilisation through conservation. I believe this is the only way forward. This is the solution."

In northern CAR, where the EU supports two national parks, the World Heritage Site Gounda-St Floris and Biosphere Reserve Bamingui Bangoran, the ECOFAUNE project, implemented by AGRECO, maintains just one operational ranger station in Bamingui. Since the CAR state collapsed, the rebel Seleka group has taken control of the region containing the park, and destroyed its HQ. The project thus focuses on maintaining and restoring good relations with local communities, supporting government and law enforcement officials, opening schools and providing vocational skills training (e.g. for tailors and mechanics).

Equip and train rangers

There was broad consensus that rangers must be trained and equipped for the threats they face. The assorted collection of old firearms they carried in the past is of limited use when their opponents carry AK47s. At the same time, it is clear that equipment should be context-appropriate, and that local communities should be involved in the process so that they can play a key role. In areas where a plan for development has been drawn up with community backing, local patrols can count on public support.

“In the past 40 years, South Sudan has known seven years of peace. In the past three years it has been full-blown civil war," said Paul Elkan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in South Sudan.

Develop local area

Parks are key employers, and in many cases provide a level of stability and governance lacking in the broader region. The Chinko Project is the largest employer outside the CAR capital, with 350 employees; and this despite being a wilderness area with no roads.

Also in northern CAR, local communities were able to generate significant income from ‘village hunting zones’ set up in the late 1990s in areas around parks to enable sustainable hunting activities in partnership with sport hunting operators (ZCV: zones cynégétiques villageoises). However, the collapse of the CAR state and progressive incursions of Sudanese and Chadian cattle herders have undermined these activities.

Invest in the long term

Long-term planning and investment provide stability and security and build trust with local communities. Just as it takes years to rebuild depleted wildlife populations following conflict and poaching, it also takes years to train management teams, and develop and maintain infrastructure. In Zakouma, which African Parks manages for the Chadian government, EU support over several decades has ‘made all the difference’ according to director Rian Labuschagne. “We manage [the park] long term and try not to think in terms of a five-year project. Tourism could probably fund the park management alone, but we carry a lot more weight. We take on a lot of responsibilities that the government cannot do.”

Engage with other land users to prevent conflict

Zakouma also takes care to engage with different land-users around the park – permanent residents who are agriculturalists and pastoralist nomads who move south from northern Chad during the dry season. Working with both groups helps to prevent conflict and keeps lines of communication open.

What do we need to address?

The following list of needs identified by park managers and other organisations underlines the close correlation between conservation, security and human development in the region.

  • Parks need to build stability and resistance for communities, conservation and security with the focus on providing local people’s security. “Human and wildlife security are the same issue, so we are supportive of this work and what we can build from it,” saidAlistair McNeilage of the USAID Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment in Kinshasa.
  • In the face of attacks and conflict, parks need to engage, adapt, ramp up information networks and raise awareness. They need better cooperation and coordination on intelligence gathering across the CAR-DRC-South Sudan triborder zone. This will also help for example, to work on prevention, e.g. to head off a poacher raid before an elephant gets killed.
  • Groups must continue to address corruption, which exists at all levels, from the highest level through embassies right down into projects themselves.
  • Parks need better logistics for improved infrastructure and provision of supplies, including the most basic, such as potable water and cement. Basic materials become extremely costly when transport costs are factored in.
  • Better education of the local population is vital to build trust and backing for conservation projects. People who are illiterate can more easily be bought and manipulated by poachers and other illegal operators.
  • Effective and legally enforced land planning is essential, for example, to prevent incursions by herders and protect park boundaries.
  • Improving intelligence (geo intelligence, community radios, imagery intelligence, ecological monitoring such as data from collared elephants) will help with prevention and detection.
  • Better coordination and collaboration at a regional level – including actors in Chad and South Sudan – will help address the cross-border nature of the threats.
  • Operations would be more efficient if reporting to donor organisations could be harmonised in timing and style, to reduce paperwork obligations.
  • Better equipped and trained armed forces and strong mentoring of rangers is essential to prepare them for being tactically outfought and outgunned. “We’ll never have enough men on ground so we rely on force-multipliers,” said John Barrett of Garamba Park.

The workshop was coordinated by the EU Biodiversity for Life Facility, which is managed by AGRECO to provide technical assistance to DG International Cooperation and Development.


* Violent rebel groups in the region include the Lords Resistance Army (LRA); Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition (SPLA-IO); Seleka, a rebel group occupying half of CAR; Janjaweed, from Darfur in Sudan, and others.

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19 December 2016

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