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BRAZZAVILLE, Aug 26 2011 (IPS) - Authorities in the Republic of Congo are showing an encouraging new readiness to arrest and prosecute people trading in endangered species.
Chen Xiongbing, a Chinese national, was sentenced to four years in prison on Aug. 10 in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, for “possession and trafficking of tusks and other ivory objects”.
Apprehended in January 2011 at the Brazzaville airport as he attempted to fly to Beijing, Chen was also ordered to pay a 6,000 dollar fine and 8,000 dollars in damages to the government.
The civil engineer’s sentence – for attempting to smuggle five large ivory tusks, three statuettes, several carved document seals and numerous other ivory items – was unprecedented for a wildlife smuggling case in this central African country.
The completion of Chen’s case follows the March conviction of Congolese citizen Jules Ngami, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison and a 600 dollar fine for “possession and commercialisation” of two leopard skins. Around the same time, three other traffickers in leopard pelts began serving their 12- month sentences in Brazzaville prison – they were each also assessed a 1,000 dollar fine.
These convictions of wildlife smugglers are a new phenomenon in Congo. Previously, rangers and forestry and water officials only impounded cargos of prohibited species. The payment of a minor fine was enough for the offence to be forgotten.
Nearly two-thirds of Congo’s surface area is forested – 11.6 percent of the country has been designated as protected areas. Congo has three national parks, six game reserves and several sanctuaries for chimpanzees and gorillas. A number of international organisations are working alongside the government to protect threatened animal species.
In November 2008, the Congolese government adopted a Law for the Protection of Wild Animals and Protected Areas which explicitly forbids “the export, import and commercialisation of protected animals or their parts”.
“It’s thanks to this legislation that law enforcement agents have begun to track poachers and traffickers of prohibited species,” William Nguembaud, a Brazzaville lawyer and environmentalist, told IPS.
“We are helping the government to send a message of zero tolerance to ivory traffickers,” said Naftali Honig, head of PALF, a wildlife law enforcement project. “We decided to support the government in this way, because the application of the law is the part which is lacking in conservation. But there is still much to do.”
In the interior of the country, even three years after its passage, few people know about the law on wildlife, and many continue to butcher protected animals. In March 2011, a trafficker in leopard skins was arrested at the Tiétié market in Pointe-Noire, the economic capital in the south of the country.
At major intersections in some of the country’s large towns, large billboards have been set up, showing the list of protected species. “We are trying to raise public awareness of this new law,” said Honig.
“The hunters don’t respect the law, and hunt without permits. But if we catch them, we enforce the law,” said Pierre Kama, head of conservation and wildlife management at the Ministry for the Forest Economy.
But the crackdown on trade in endangered species has had some undesirable effects. Rangers have carried out violent searches of entire villages, beating up anyone caught with even a scrap of meat suspected to come from a protected species.
“The people living near wildlife parks have suffered humiliation or beatings, sometimes for nothing more than possession of a simple ground squirrel,” said Roger Bouka Owoko, the executive director of the Congolese Human Rights Observatory and author of a 2006 report on the poor treatment of indigenous populations.
Non-governmental organisations believe that some prominent people are involved in this traffic. “We welcome the fact that the poachers have been tried and sentenced. But, the links making up the rest of their networks are still unknown. For example, in the traffic in ivory, the customers are not bothered,” said Bouka Owoko.
“Often, government officials arm the hunters to kill protected species. The same people help traffickers to sell their product in the city,” said Vivien Ilahou, president of Congo Environnement, an NGO based at Dolisie, in the southwest.
In April, at the northern town of Ouesso, seven people – including four rangers employed by the government – were convicted of trafficking in ivory and leopard skins. They were transferred to detention in Brazzaville to serve sentences of between 12 and 24 months.
Paul Telfer, head of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s Congo programme in Brazzaville, said “Corruption in conservation is not acceptable. The rangers must be more honest.”
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