Poachers have dealt a tragic blow to a population of imperilled ungulates in one of Central Africa's oldest and most celebrated sanctuaries.

News of the killing of several Kordofan giraffes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Garamba National Park  all belonging to a rare subspecies of the world's tallest animal  comes from filmmaker David Hamlin, via National Geographic's Special Investigations Unit.  

Garamba Map 2016 08 18

In June, Hamlin was thrilled to photograph, from the air, a trio of Kordofan giraffes in a lush Garamba glade. The animals are characterised by pale and uneven spots, and fewer than 2,000 of them still cling to survival in the wild*. In greater Garamba, only around 40 remain.

That perilously low number makes what happened just 12 hours or so after Hamlin's sighting all the more tragic. Hearing gunshots, local rangers ultimately discovered three dead giraffes, almost assuredly the carcasses of the little group Hamlin had just marvelled at. For the filmmaker, it was a "crushing realisation".

The incident was investigated by staff with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) and the non-profit African Parks, which together oversee Garamba. Hamlin has since made a video documenting the events. 

The poachers had opened the giraffes' bellies to encourage faster scavenging by vultures – an effort to dispose of the evidence before it drew the attention of rangers, according to African Parks operations director Leon Lamprecht. Among the slain animals were a bull that the park had been tracking with a satellite collar and a female of breeding age, an especially devastating loss for such a dwindled population.

But the criminals took no meat or hide: all they wanted were the hairy tips of the giraffes' tails. For Lamprecht, this suggested that the giraffe killers were Congolese, who covet the tails (used as flywhisks) for marriage dowries.

The scattered range of the Kordofan giraffe spans "some of Africa's more hostile areas", according to the IUCN's Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group (GOSG). This includes the borderlands of the DRC and South Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon and southern Chad.

Garamba itself is sadly well acquainted with the horrors of poaching, and multiple groups operate within its borders: the Lord's Resistance Army and the Janjaweed covet elephant ivory, while poachers from South Sudan seek bushmeat.

The almost 2,000-square-mile national park, established in 1938 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, lies in the biologically rich frontier between the rainforests of the Congo Basin and the Sudanian savannahs. The mosaic landscape here supports a wealth of wildlife, from forest creatures like chimpanzees and bongos to open-country species such as lions, spotted hyenas and hartebeest. 

Garamba has also historically been home to large numbers of our planet's great herbivores, reports UNESCO, including elephants, hippos and white rhinos. The park was the last wild stronghold of the northern subspecies of white rhino, targeted by poachers for its horns. Sadly, none have been seen in Garamba since the mid-2000s, and the IUCN now considers the northern white rhino as likely extinct (a few captive animals inhabit a Kenyan conservancy). Poachers have also exacted a heavy toll on Garamba's remaining elephants.

Hamlin's video publicises not only the horrific giraffe-poaching incident but also the continuing, against-the-odds dedication of Garamba rangers to keeping the park's Kordofan giraffes and other wildlife from meeting the same fate as its white rhinos.

As Ariana Lado, the ICCN's head of law enforcement for Garamba, says in the video, "We are committed to fighting [the poachers], and this situation will not discourage us or push us to stop fighting against the poaching in Garamba National Park, so we will continue sacrificing ourselves for these animals."

* Many Kordofan giraffes, both wild populations and dozens housed in European zoos, were previously classified as the West African subspecies. (There are currently nine giraffe subspecies recognized; of these, according to the GOSG, the rarest are the Nubian and West African varieties, both of which number in the mere hundreds.)


Top header image: Ben Rohrs, Flickr