On Monday, 18 April 2011 in Ouesso, northern Republic of Congo, thirteen wildlife traffickers were prosecuted for various wildlife crimes, hit with tough jail sentences ranging from 12 to 24 months in prison. The highest profile cases include two international ivory dealers, a notorious large-scale elephant poacher and four Ecoguards revealed to have committed the same crimes they were supposed to prevent, and arrested in the act of facilitating ivory traffic.
Other notable cases included other elephant hunters and ivory traffickers, two gorilla hunters, and a truck driver for the logging company working in the region, CIB (Congolaise Industrielle des Bois), who was involved in ivory traffic as well.
The Ecoguards admitted to corruption, having turned their noble task into an organized trafficking operation. They were sentenced to two years in prison each. Other sentences ranged between 12 and 18 months in jail, the two year sentences representing a crackdown on corruption.
The Republic of Congo started a push for the application of its wildlife laws by launching PALF (Project for the Application of Law for Fauna) – a partnership between two NGOs and the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment. The
purpose is to support the ministry in investigations of wildlife crime, operations, follow up on court cases; and to fight corruption which often blocks the full application of the law. “While Congo has advanced in wildlife law enforcement, the North of the country remains an area of great concern, with ivory traffickers and poachers being freed from jail often before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.
With the support of PALF and serious treatment of illegal trafficking networks by the Ministry of Justice, the way wildlife crimes are treated in Congo is beginning to change. No one is above the law.” says PALF Coordinator Naftali Honig.
The cases exposed international trafficking routes, highlighting the need for international collaboration in the fight. Congo joined Cameroon in an alliance, now including Gabon and CAR as well, coordinated by LAGA (Last Great Ape Organization) to intensify the crackdown regionally. LAGA Coordinator Ofir Drori says, “Corruption remains our number one obstacle in the struggle to protect Africa’s forests. Not just corruption in government offices but in NGO projects. Congo’s prosecutions serve as a lesson to all those ignoring corruption that it can be fought and won over.”
WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), who supports Ecoguards in a number of protected areas in Congo, is intent upon rooting out the corruption amongst the park rangers. “Corruption in conservation is unacceptable” says Director of WCS-Congo, Paul Telfer. “This case demonstrates that it exists and that we can fight it. We will root it out wherever it exists to make sure that conservation efforts serve to protect wildlife and do not become victim to individual greed.”
The difficulties are numerous in putting wildlife legislation into practice. Arms suppliers are often authorities. Traffic may be facilitated by the presence of logging companies and even park rangers. Bribery attempts are commonplace from the moment a trafficker is taken into custody through the carrying out of a prison sentence.
“The battle is uphill,” says Honig, “but these sentences are a major success for Congo. More sentences like these could really change the way people weigh out the risks of illegally trafficking wildlife and we hope this will echo from cities all the way to the forests and work in the favor of protected species.”
PALF new website – www.palf-enforcement.org
Naf – firstname.lastname@example.org