The Republic of Congo has witnessed war and human tragedy, but a war of another kind is being fought – a war to save endangered wildlife, particularly elephants, from poaching syndicates that have ravaged the country.
However, an integrated approach, with on-the-ground patrols coupled with intelligence-driven operations, is effectively taking down the patrons of elephant poaching and dismantling the criminal syndicates, according to a press release by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
This summer, wildlife rangers from the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a protected area managed by WCS, arrested more than 30 poachers; seized more than 100 kilograms of ivory and detained six semi-automatic weapons around the limits of the park.
This includes the arrest and conviction of an ivory trafficker tied to one the most notorious poaching rings in northern Congo.
Samuel Pembele has been sentenced to five years in jail by Ouesso’s criminal court, the maximum penalty under Congolese law.
Pembele of the 2Pac trafficking network has been operating in the area for several years, commissioning elephant hunts and moving and selling large quantities of ivory.
“The Wildlife Conservation Society’s newly established Wildlife Crime Unit offers unprecedented access to the higher-level players in the Congo’s northern poaching circles,” said Mark Gately, the WCS Congo Country Director.
Effective application of Congo’s wildlife laws relies on a watertight law-enforcement chain – from the forest patrols to the court trials.
Evidence must be well-documented, cases put forward with coherence and justice served. The conviction of Pembele was pivotal in the fight to shut down the poachers.
“With increased coverage, staff power, and the use of real-time communications technology, wildlife rangers are bringing the fight to poachers,” added Gately.
The Wildlife Crime Unit is starting to play an important role in following up cases, publicising the events in the local media, closely monitoring court proceedings and stamping out the ever-present risk of corruption.
During the summer, on the July 25, a ranger team on a routine forest patrol startled a group of four poachers on the Ndoki River, a notorious poaching corridor that leads to the park.
The incident was immediately communicated to the park’s Control Centre and the Rapid Reaction Unit, a specialist force of elite rangers, was deployed to contain the fleeing poachers.
Three days later, the unit stopped a suspect, Pemeble, crossing the containment zone, and he was transferred to WCS’s Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU).
Coincidentally, Pembele had been subject to an ongoing undercover investigation, which had him tied to a chief poaching ring operating in northern Congo recently implicated in a major ivory deal.
This intelligence was used to leverage several critical admissions, including the denouncement of a fellow ringleader, leading to both their arrest.
Pembele was convicted on November 10 and sentenced to five years in prison.
“The conviction of Pembele signals a significant change for elephant conservation in Congo. A strong message has been sent to all poaching networks across the Ndoki landscape that wildlife criminals cannot go on breaking the law with impunity, a positive shift in ensuring the future of elephants in Ndoki is secured,” said Gately.
“This kind of collaboration between the newly created WCU, a team of investigators and legal experts fighting wildlife crime in the urban areas in northern Congo, and the Park’s ranger force are increasingly bringing about high impact arrests.”
This arrest and conviction underlines several key advances in the park’s anti-poaching efforts over the past two years.
Ranger numbers for the park have quadrupled since 2014 and have undergone several rounds of paramilitary training.
Technological advances are becoming pivotal too with the deployment of new real-time satellite tracking devices that have revolutionised patrol operations.
Ivory poaching and trafficking in northern Congo is controlled and financed by a select group, locally referred to as ‘patrons,’ who lurk in logging towns, discreetly provide poachers with weapons and commission elephant hunts.
Taking a ‘patron’ like Pembele out of the system has a far-reaching reductive effect on poaching pressure.
Patrols in Ndoki are becoming more and more intelligence driven, targeting known access points and poaching grounds.
The additional intelligence that the WCU brings to the table further targets patrols and offers the opportunity to preempt the criminal activities.
Pembele was not travelling along the logging road passing through the checking zone by chance; follow-up questioning revealed that he was returning from a mission to look for an elephant gun, in a logging town north of the Park.
Where remoteness has long provided a blanket of protection for the Republic of Congo’s Ndoki forest, today’s rapid encroachment of logging roads outside the park limits, alongside a fast growing population and a ten-fold rise in the local price for ivory, has brought unprecedented levels of illegal hunting.
Ivory trafficking networks continue to flourish in Congo and across the border to Central African Republic and Cameroon. These networks are exploiting new communication and transport links that arrive with logging.
Almost one quarter of the worlds remaining forest elephants reside here in northern Congo. Having suffered a serious decline of more than 60 percent across Central Africa over the past decade, protecting these elephants and their forests is of global importance.