Ten countries sign up to $14m scheme that includes cooperation between law enforcement agencies and joint border patrols
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 July 2012 16.56 BST
Central African countries have launched an ambitious coordinated plan to combat poaching in the region, in the face of escalating wildlife crime and accompanying violence.
The $14m initiative, which includes cooperation between law enforcement agencies, joint country patrols around border areas, ramping up of investigations, use of informants, prosecutions and penalties, was announced at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Geneva this week.
Jean-Baptiste Mamang-Kanga, director of animal protection at the Central African Republic’s wildlife ministry, told the Guardian: “Over the past five years, the problem of poaching has got much worse. It is no longer a case of a few small-scale hunters trying to sell animal parts at local markets. Now it is a big organised activity with grenades and machine guns.”
Several of the 10 signatories to the five-year plan, which include the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Gabon, have experienced heavily armed invasions by organised gangs in recent years.
In March, up to 400 elephants were killed in a few hours in a park in Cameroon by a Sudanese gang on horseback bearing machine guns. On Tuesday, 30 elephants were massacred in Chad by a group of armed militia on horseback, leaving a two-week-old baby elephant fighting for its life.
Elephants in Central Africa declined by more than 50% between 1995 and 2007, according to estimates, primarily due to poaching. Rhino poaching increased 3,000% between 2007 and 2011.
“The increase of large-scale ivory seizures is evidence of the growing involvement of organized crime in the illicit trade in wildlife,” says Wendy Elliott, species programme manager for WWF. “Illegal wildlife trade is often conducted by well-organised criminal networks that are undermining efforts to strengthen the rule of law and governance in many countries.”
The human cost of this criminal activity can also be high. In June, a notorious elephant poacher led a gang of bandits in an attack on the Okapi wildlife reserve in DRC, killing seven people. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the efforts of the ranger team to disrupt poaching and other illegal activities.Over the past decade, 183 rangers have been killed in one national park in DRC, according to the Thin Green Line Foundation, which supports rangers in danger.
Elephants and rhinos are not the only animals at risk. Thirty apes from the DRC were illegally exported to Asia in recent years, the meeting heard.
Part of the problem is that the countries targeted are poor and many have weak governance, few resources and inadequate law enforcement systems for tackling sophisticated criminals. This makes wildlife crime a highly profitable but low-risk activity. Most seizures of illegal wildlife trade are made in Asia, not before export in Africa. For example, the DRC reported only six ivory seizures in the past two decades, yet was implicated in 396 seizures made outside of the country.
More than half of illegal ivory ends up in China, and the rapidly growing number of Chinese nationals in Africa are frequently implicated and convicted of involvement in illegal wildlife crime. A recent report by the Elephant Trade Information System (EITS) noted that Chinese nationals have been arrested within or coming from Africa in at least 134 ivory seizure cases, totalling more than 16 tonnes of ivory between 1989-2009.
With China representing the biggest investor in Central Africa, the 10 countries have appealed for support for the initiative, and there are signs of cooperation. China has invited officials from Central African nations with large elephant populations for training in law enforcement and monitoring techniques, and has invited countries to apply for financial help for the new initiative.
The 10 signatories to the initiative are Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda and São Tomé e Príncipe