Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing to discuss U.S. interests in Africa and the ways in which the U.S. can play a role in stabilizing critical regions, including areas of central Africa where Invisible Children’s work takes place. At the hearing, investigative reporter Bryan Christy of National Geographic was invited to testify on the ways in which poaching and related violence are part of destabilizing regions, how it relates to the fight against global terrorism, and what actions the U.S. and global community can take to help stop it.
Across Africa, including areas of eastern Central African Republic (CAR) and northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), poaching is a major cause of decline in endangered wildlife and ecosystems; it’s also a driving force behind violent criminal activity around the world. Illegal poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife often serve as revenue streams for violent armed groups and can be linked to increased violence against civilians in the vicinity of wildlife protected areas.
Over the years we’ve seen this play out in northeastern DRC as groups of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters carry out elephant poaching missions in DRC’s Garamba National Park. Reports from our Early Warning Radio Network show a clear correlation between the presence of LRA poaching groups and an increase in LRA attacks on communities around the park. In fact, just last week, we released our May 2017 LRA Crisis Tracker Security Brief, which highlights a series of LRA attacks on communities by an LRA group moving toward Garamba National Park.
Much of Bryan Christy’s testimony before Congress emphasized the importance of support for park rangers, including game wardens and wildlife crime fighters, in the fight against illicit wildlife trafficking. In many places like in central Africa, where communities are isolated and highly marginalized, park rangers play a critical role in providing protection for both animals and people. As rangers work to protect wildlife and other natural resources in parks, they are often also helping to promote security more broadly, making it safer for families to pursue livelihood activities that might otherwise make them vulnerable to armed group attacks.
According to Christy, park rangers also represent a line of defense in the prevention of disease across Africa. By working to stop poaching, rangers also prevent the consumption of bushmeat, which can carry and cause the spread of diseases like Ebola in human populations. Additionally, the stability rangers create can allow for doctors and researchers to visit and study diseases in order to improve health in the region.
However, for all the good they do for wildlife and human communities, the job of a park ranger isn’t easy and is far from safe. In the past ten years, 22 rangers have been killed protecting Garamba National Park alone, and another 150 have been killed in neighboring Virunga National Park since the start of DRC’s civil war. Because rangers provide a form of governance and law enforcement, they are often targeted by armed groups and poachers who seek to exploit and destabilize regions in which they operate. Making the situation more difficult: many rangers are severely under-equipped and unable to properly deter poachers, especially those that are heavily armed. Bryan Christy stressed the importance of support for park rangers as an opportunity for the U.S. to contribute to the stabilization of areas throughout Africa threatened by wildlife-related crime.
Christy’s testimony is a strong reminder of the link between wildlife protection and the safety of communities around the globe, particularly those that are severely isolated and lack the kind of tools and infrastructure that enable them to connect with each other and the outside world. That is why, in addition to supporting park rangers, projects like our Early Warning Radio Network and LRA Crisis Tracker are so important. By equipping communities with the tools to share critical information about threats to humans and wildlife with each other and with wildlife conservation actors, these programs are not only making families safer from violence, they are enabling local communities to play a key role in the protection of wildlife in their own backyard.