Last month, Cher and I thought we should take an opportunity to get on one of our flights up to Garamba National Park before friends left at the end of their job contract there, so we went up for a couple nights. Our friend Erik, the warden, asked us to call as we were took off from Nyankunde, but I couldn’t get through till we were about 10 minutes from the park. To our surprise, we were greeted by a company of fully kitted out Parks Game Scouts on parade to welcome our passengers. We hadn’t realized it, but we were carrying the EU Ambassador to Congo, the head of USAID to Congo, the head of ICCN, Congo’s National Parks, and the plane full of other dignitaries. We also did not realize it was the 80th anniversary of the park and there was a big celebration planned with the governor and even more VIPs to come. So much for our quiet getaway in the bush!
But it was very cool. We got to celebrate with our friends. The park has been under harassment from the LRA and South Sudanese poachers, as well as “unknown people” shooting from helicopters, and local poachers. The last of the northern white rhino have disappeared in the time we have been living in Congo and the elephants have suffered greatly. Erik, (who has been shot in the process of protecting the park’s wildlife), was telling us that in the first weeks he was at the park they lost 25 elephants to poachers. In the first 6 months of this year they have lost none! That is a remarkable change and shows the amount of work that has gone into protecting the elephants here. Part of the celebration was the graduation of 50 new game scouts from their rigorous training program. To be a parks ranger in Congo’s parks is to be a soldier, and these men have been trained by the best; everyone from ex-Mossad, British SAS, Green berets, and French and Belgian special forces. They are putting the poachers on notice that they will not tolerate poaching in their park.
Another part of the ceremony was the burning of some ivory. I have mixed feelings about the viability of this. I am glad it will not benefit the poaching of elephants at all, but I’m not really sure how the law of supply and demand is affected. There are millions of Chinese desiring to buy at this point, and that needs to somehow be the focus of effort on the market in my humble opinion. Ivory sales in Zimbabwe paid for their elephant conservation program, and it wasn’t until they were stopped that elephant poaching went crazy and elephant population numbers dropped radically, with container loads of ivory going out as “diplomatic pouch” with the government’s full knowledge. Things are not as simple as some would like them to be. The efforts of the team at Garamba are seriously commendable.
I got to give the Garamba pilot his bi-annual Proficiency Flight Review, so after the celebrations we went out to the airstrip, took the door off the plane, and went out to fly and drop some supplies to the park’s remote outposts from the air. Game viewing from a plane is a wonderful way to see the park and it’s beautiful rolling grasslands. Especially at 500 feet with the door off.