Interpol’s international relations director, Asan Kasingye, who headed the investigation into the theft, blames the incident on widespread corruption. He believes these kinds of incidents wouldn’t be possible without collaboration along many points of the supply chain.
But Kasingye says the people helping the traffickers may not be aware of the true damage they’ve done. “The proceeds of ivory can go into arms trade, can go into terrorism activities,” he says. “[It] can go into making sure that the conflicts within our regions don’t end.”
Uganda has long been plagued by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group known for its vicious attacks on the Ugandan people. LRA leader Joseph Kony was indicted for war crimes in 2005 but has evaded capture despite US special forces and others looking for him. He’s now reportedly living in hiding in the Central African Republic, but there’s strong evidence that he and his army are supporting themselves in large part via the illegal wildlife trade.
Enough Project field researcher Kasper Agger says the LRA has been cashing in on ivory for a while now. By some estimates, the LRA is earning $40,000 for every elephant it kills. And LRA soldiers are killing a lot. Last spring, nearly 70 elephants were slaughtered in Garamba National Park in just two months.
Agger says the LRA transports the ivory from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through Uganda, to South Sudan, where they sell or trade it for bullets, arms, medical supplies, batteries and satellite phones. Without their own transnational network to get the ivory out of Central Africa, the LRA sells it to other ivory traders. “These include wealthy businessmen. Some of them might be connected to local government officials, [or] the army,” Agger says.
The ivory is then hidden with other types of trade — legal items like rice, millet, or timber — which is then shipped to Asia where 90 percent of all the world’s ivory ends up.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority employs about 1,300 rangers and other staff to help control this trade. Its newly-reinstated executive director, Andrew Seguya, admits there may be some former LRA fighters in their ranks. But he denies they are helping the ivory trade thrive within Uganda. “When we recruit people we do background checks. I am only aware [of] about two or three officers that used to be in the LRA,” he says. “It is also a logistical nightmare for anybody to transport one or two tusks all that way when you could get tusks in the Central African Republic itself. It doesn’t sound to be a credible story.”
However, there is little doubt that the LRA is managing to profit off the ivory trade despite the work of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
The Enough Project’s Agger says other groups are getting in on the action too, including armed groups like al-Shabaab, the Janjaweed from Sudan, the Seleka rebels in Central African Republic and Boko Haram from Nigeria.
This is a huge expansion of an already devastating trade — all running through Uganda’s fractious borders. To end this practice, Ugandan authorities will have to deal with not only these external forces, but also their own officials — who may be taking advantage of widespread, high-level corruption to make a killing from the ivory trade.