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By: The Elephant Sanctuary

Republic of Congo Signals a Turn in Poaching Fight

By Jada F. Smith - April 30 2015 WASHINGTON — Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Repub...

By Jada F. Smith - April 30 2015

Burning Ivory.
WASHINGTON — Denis Sassou-Nguesso, president of the Republic of Congo, smiled broadly as he set fire to more than five tons of illegally hunted elephant tusks this week in Brazzaville, the nation’s capital.

The ivory had been seized from poachers across the country, and, fueled by similarly poached timber, the bonfire Wednesday was intended as a public condemnation of a crisis that has ravaged the continent’s resources. Officials are determined to keep the pressure on traffickers, both outside the government and in it, long after the ashes cool.

The event was part of a weeklong conference hosted by the Republic of Congo’s government to address a resurgence in international demand for elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns and other wild flora and fauna. Heads of state from Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and other nations attended, along with leading conservationists who say officials across Africa may be turning a corner on their approach to protecting wildlife.

“This is not just for mere statements,” said Henri Djombo, the Republic of Congo’s minister of forest economy and sustainable development. “We are creating an action and implementation plan. And we believe that everyone has to be involved.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has identified the Republic of Congo as having a historically poor record on the issue, citing a lack of well-equipped and well-trained managers to protect elephants in the field; inadequate security at government stockpiles; a lack of aggressive prosecution in the courts; and, most important, corruption and a lack of oversight on the transportation of seized materials.

But government officials have been working to change that. They began a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York, and other organizations in February to address what is viewed as a major roadblock to curtailing poaching — at least from the inside. They have put in place a strict electronic chain of command for tracking government stockpiles, so they know how much is burned, where it came from and which employee took it there. That way they can target areas of heavy poaching, and know whom to confront when something goes missing. They now itemize each tusk upon seizure, giving it a unique number and adding the information to a central database in Brazzaville.

“It’s important that there’s a chain of custody to improve transparency of the whole process,” said Emma Stokes, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If a tusk is seized by authorities out in a national park far from the city, it has to get officially transferred to a stockpile in Brazzaville. But there was no previous way of tracking. It could be stolen or go missing, which is very problematic, given the high value on the illegal market of ivory these days.”

The United States has become the second-largest market for illegal wildlife products, and a major conduit to Asia, prompting the Obama administration to announce that American intelligence agencies would bolster their tracking and targeting of those who participate in the trade. The United States will also be joining with other countries to pressure Asian nations not to buy and sell illegal wildlife products.

While a multiagency study showed a 65 percent decline in the number of forest elephants in central Africa from 2002 to 2013, there is evidence that the new measures have been working in the Republic of Congo. Officials have seen success in Conkouati-Douli, a national park in the country’s southwest that is one of the few places where elephant populations have stabilized, with better park management, training, security and community education. They have also begun setting up an “intelligence network” across the country, so people with information about poaching can disclose what they know. Officials hope to replicate that in areas across central Africa.

“What we need is evidence of political will to deal with the corruption, to make sure the money hits the ground in key populations,” said Simon Hedges, an elephant conservation coordinator and ivory trade policy analyst with the conservation society. “What everyone is looking for is implementation.”

People like Mr. Hedges are encouraged. The action plan developed at the International Conference on the Illegal Exploitation and Illegal Trade in Wild Flora and Fauna in Africa, where the ivory burning took place, will be presented at the African Union summit meeting in South Africa in June.

Mr. Djombo, the Republic of Congo’s minister, said that wildlife crime was eroding Africa’s biological resources, and that no one could afford to make it anything less than a top priority.

“This is an international issue,” Mr. Djombo said, adding: “Our country alone cannot fix this. We need the assistance of the global community.”


Correction: April 30, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of the group with which Emma Stokes is affiliated. It is the Wildlife Conservation Society, not the World Conservation Society.

 

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