The secretive Ugandan rebel group will begin immediately protecting the rhinos, the world’s rarest mammals, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo under its control, it said on Monday.
“The statistics we were shown were devastating and shocked us, and so we have given a tacit commitment that we will do whatever possible to live in harmony with the animals,” said Martin Ojul, head of the LRA delegation at peace talks with Uganda.
“We will act as their curators and do everything possible to see that they are not harmed for posterity,” he said, speaking to AFP.
In addition to protecting the rhinos, and other endangered species, Joseph Kony, the LRA’s leader, said that his fighters would not attack game wardens in the DRC’s Garamba National Park.
“We wish to assure the rangers in Garamba park that, provided they properly identify themselves and not attack us, we undertake to fully cooperate with them,” says the pact, which was signed by Ojul on Sunday with Kony’s authority.
In the past, the LRA has attacked wardens in the region and killed eight Guatemalan United Nations troops in Garamba park in January.
Kony’s fighters have also killed and eaten numerous rare animals.
Conservationist to the rescue
The LRA agreed to protect the wildlife in the park after meeting a South Africa conservationist, Lawrence Anthony, who travelled to the ongoing peace talks in Juba.
Parts of Congo have been at war for decades
Anthony, founder of the South African charity the Earth Organisation, told Aljazeera.net he made the 6,500 km (4,000 mile) round-trip after realising that this might be the last chance to save the white rhino.
“The northern white rhino is the most endangered mammal on the planet. And if the rangers cannot enter the park, their fate is sealed,” Anthony said.
“This agreement is extremely significant. The LRA occupy the Garamba National Park. What they have just done is given these animals a chance of survival.
“They are also saying they will not shoot the Congo giraffe or the okapi under any circumstances.”
Anthony said that, at first, the rebel army was suspicious of him.
Democratic Republic of Congo
“It was very difficult to interact with them to begin with,” he said. “But once they understood that we were talking about rhinos it got easier.
“This is because … the rhino is the totem for tribes in the north of Uganda. Once they realised there was this connection, it was easier. These people have grown up in the bush and there is a relationship with wildlife.
“In the end, they spent a lot of time with us on this matter, and took time out of the peace negotiations to talk.”
There are now an estimated four northern white rhinos left in the wild – all in the 1,300 sq km (500 square mile) Garamba National Park. Another 10 survive in zoos.
In the early 1970s there were 500 northern white rhinos in the wild before civil war in the region allowed poaching to flourish.
Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army
The LRA has also said that it will protect the Garamba’s 40 remaining Congo giraffes and the okapi, a deer-like creature that is closely related to giraffes.
Anthony says that he believes that this is the first time that conservation issues have played a part in peace agreements.
“Bringing the conservation of wildlife into conflict resolution is a landmark – it hasn’t happened before. We’re extremely pleased that we managed to achieve this,” he says.
“We’re making a call that in all future conflict resolution discussions – like in the Middle East and Sri Lanka – environmentalist and conservationists should be involved.”
The once-secretive LRA has recently moved into the spotlight after taking part in peace talks with Uganda that are mediated by the government of autonomous south Sudan.
Kony and other commanders have been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court for abuses including mutilations, rapes and mass slaughters of civilians during its 18-year war with the Ugandan government.
Ojul said the LRA had agreed to protect the animals as part of a campaign to convince the world that the allegations are not true.
“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We want the international community to understand that we love nature, we are not a cult and that we have a human face. We are not a bunch of bandits.”