Body parts seized in Gabon

Posted on January 20, 2011

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If you had asked me two years ago where Gabon was, I probably would have struggled to pin point its exact whereabouts in Africa on a map. Now, it’s a different story and I know only too well where this West African nation lies and sadly today, it’s made the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

courtesy of Gabon Embassy

Five people have been arrested in Gabon following what’s believed to be, the largest seizure of great ape body parts in the last ten years. The parts found include the head and hands of a gorilla, along with twelve chimpanzee heads and thirty chimpanzee hands. All of these apes slaughtered are endangered.

The raids were conducted by Gabon’s water and forestry and defence ministries with the help of various environmental aid groups.

Confiscated illegal body parts from the raids

The suspects who are from elsewhere in Africa – four Nigerians and a woman from Benin – may only face six months in prison if they are convicted.

Matthew Lewis from the environmental organisation, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF),  said: “These dried hands and heads imply rather more of an ornamental use or a medicinal use of these parts rather than a food use. So it is disturbing and it indicates that the rest of the animals were probably consumed for food and that these portions probably being traded somewhere else.”

Officials say they do not know what the body parts were intended for.

All of the species identified are supposed to be protected under international law, yet this sort of crime continues at an alarming rate. Illegal wildlife poaching happens all over Africa, in particular in West and Central Africa, where some say law enforcement is harder to implement.

The shocking reality is that not only are primates populations impacted by this trade, but other rare and endangered species suffer too.  Among the rest of the confiscated parts were 12 leopard skins, a portion of lion skin, snake skins and five elephant tails. It is never just one animal that is killed, but usually an entire family, certainly for most primates. Species that live in groups will fight to defend those threatened, which inevitably ends in mass bloodshed.

Gabon’s rainforests are rich with wildlife, including lowland gorillas and forest elephants – and national parks make up around one tenth of the country  – but this also makes it an attractive target for poachers desperate to earn a living and to feed their families, in the case of the very poor.

Bush meat – wild game – has also proved popular in Europe as a delicacy, where there is a growing African immigrant population. Even though it is illegal, the black-market trade has managed to operate very successfully in Europe.
Just before I left for Uganda last summer, scientists published data (Conservation Letters) supporting evidence that showed that more than five tons of bush meat were being smuggled through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris each week. After years in which conservationists focused on the loss of habitat as a chief reason for the disappearance of species, illegal hunting is proving to be another main driver of extinction.  If international demand for bush meat continues, is it any wonder this trade is able to thrive?

WWF has called for a tough judicial approach to act as a deterrent to poachers in Africa; but as I learnt from local prosecutors during my trip to Uganda, law enforcement is hard to implement and sentences are very often short. Those who are repeat offenders often slip through the net, as record keeping is poor and magistrates are none the wiser.

Luc Mathot, founder of Conservation Justice, another environmental organisation, believes the attitude in Gabon is changing though, “Recent ivory poaching prosecutions prove that the judicial authorities in Gabon now regard wildlife cases with high importance. We hope they will do the same for ape and big cat cases such as this one.”

The suspects have been remanded in custody while an investigation is carried out and are expected to appear in court this week.

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Posted in: Organised crime