The Congo Basin is home to the second largest tropical forest on the planet. It hosts a tremendous biodiversity, including some of the most iconic species in Africa. The forest elephant is a species unique to Central Africa. Gorillas and chimpanzees, both found in these forests, are humankind’s closest living relatives. Leopards still roam these forests. The regal bongo can be found in forests in the north of the country, and the gregarious mandrill in the forests in the south. A diversity of primates, a myriad of bird species, and uncountable species of plants, insects, and fungi make their homes in the Central African forests as well.
Tragically, all of these iconic species are victims of illegal wildlife traffic. Beyond habitat loss and environmental change, illegal poaching and trafficking is rapidly driving a number of species directly towards extinction. Illicit bushmeat trafficking is a major cause for the decline of species like the gorilla, the chimpanzee and the mandrill. Sadly, bushmeat is only part of the problem. Other species are killed most specifically for their trophies. Leopards and bongos are killed for a shockingly vigorous trade in their skins to both national and international markets; and in Central Africa the ivory trade is threatening the very survival of the forest elephant.
The modern wildlife crisis
The dynamic of the hunt in Congo has changed dramatically over the last century. Traditional methods are barely used anymore and guns—even semi-automatic firearms in some cases—are remarkably common and easy to take into the forest. Instead of hunting to feed a family, hunting has become an organized crime where commercial bushmeat dealers might send many hunters into the forest at once to collect substantial quantities of bushmeat that is later sold to urban centers.
Until recently, these organized groups have found little resistance from local law enforcers. Authorities are often implicated in the crimes, either directly or indirectly through corrupt facilitation of these illegal activities. Even when caught, a wildlife dealer can find recourse in the corruption by paying off authorities to be freed or by corrupting the judicial system.
Trafficking is big business and complex networks are used to kill wildlife and move products onto local and international markets. Protecting national parks and reserves is only the first step in the fight against the illegal trade. WCS is a member of a project called PALF (Project for the Application of Law for Fauna) through which it is working to fight the illegal commerce from a variety of angles by controlling the urban trafficking and the pervasive corruption that enables it. PALF is part of a movement across Central Africa to include support for the application of wildlife law as a fundamental element of national conservation strategies.
PALF – Project for the Application of Law for Fauna
PALF is a multi-partner project involving WCS, Congo’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Forest Economy and the Environment and the Aspinall Foundation. In 2010, these partners signed an agreement that marked the opening of the PALF project. PALF collaborates with the Lusaka Agreement Task Force—an inter-governmental organization that facilitates investigations into wildlife crimes—and local informants, as well as other WCS projects. Cases that might otherwise virtually disappear in a matter of days are now followed by an entire team of PALF legal experts who address issues of corruption. The media, via television, internet, newspapers and radio in multiple languages, publicize the advances made in the application of wildlife law, so, together with prison sentences and fines, wildlife traffickers are deterred from their illegal practices.
A legal guide has been prepared and distributed to authorities in various ministries, including the courts. Congolese law is the strongest in the region with regard to punishment for wildlife crime. But as a text without application, it is impotent. Little by little, that is changing and the text is leading to sentences being handed down and corruption rooted out of the way wildlife law is addressed. Both in Congo and around the world, the improvements have been widely congratulated and continued amelioration has been strongly encouraged.
Some of the most important recent cases have involved collaborative efforts between PALF and PROGEPP (Project for the Management of Ecosystems Adjacent to the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park) in Northern Congo, working on cases involving some of the biggest ivory traffickers in the country and the corruption that lets these criminals get away with their business. PALF’s work has also led to the sentencing of Chinese nationals trafficking ivory. China is known to be the biggest demand country for elephant ivory. In all cases involving Chinese nationals, the criminals spent some time in jail, and additionally they paid large fines, up to around $19,000. In addition to ivory trafficking (both raw and sculpted), PALF has assisted in getting criminals sentenced for dealing in leopard skins, illegal bushmeat, and live great apes as well. The fight is only beginning, but change is only possible through determination.