UN pledges better law enforcement but gorillas still being slaughtered

Posted on April 24, 2011


Less than a month after the United Nations pledged to enforce stricter laws to protect gorillas, these endangered primates are still being butchered by illegal traffickers.

Two hunters  arrested in the Ngombe forest in the Republic of Congo were jailed last week; sentenced to a year and order to pay fines of more than £1500. Their crime, like so many others who continue to flout the law, was killing a gorilla for commercial bushmeat.

Western lowland gorilla

Naftali Honig from PALF (whose French acronym translates as the project for the application of law for fauna), which was responsible for bringing the hunters to justice said: “Laws protecting wildlife in Republic of Congo are quite strong, but putting them into practice is an uphill struggle with many obstacles along the way, notably criminals using influence or other forms of corruption to escape justice.

“Also a general lack of practice in enforcing wildlife laws beyond the park rangers patrolling protected areas is a major problem in Congo and for conservation throughout Central Africa. Without serious fear of consequence, law breakers are unafraid of the law. The ramifications of a weak legal system are endless.”

The international meeting staged in Kigali, Rwanda, at the end of March was organised by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It concluded that transboundary collaboration, coordination with UN peace-building missions, such as MONUSCO (United Nations Organisation Stabilising Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and law enforcement agencies must be strengthened, with increased resources and training for law enforcement personnel and rangers.

CMS Executive Secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema said: “Joint efforts to apply wildlife law are important because gorillas play a key role in the ecology of Africa’s forests. Their loss has an impact on the health of the whole ecosystem and, by extension, on everyone who lives in or benefits from these forests.”

Yes it’s fantastic that this meeting brought together some of the major agencies and put wildlife corruption under the spotlight yet again, but when are we going to see those promises put into action? So many wildlife activists I have spoken to are sceptical about seeing any of these proposals come to fruition. Criminal gangs continue to fuel the illegal trade in commercial bushmeat and as long as there is a financial incentive to turn a blind eye, how do these agencies expect to fight corruption? Activists have told me they believe criminal gangs are the ones that must be targeted and jailed if we are to have a chance in safeguarding endangered species; they are the ones driving the demand.

A male western lowland gorilla

According to PALF in 2010 a man killed three gorillas with an AK-47 which he allegedly obtained illegally from a police officer. After the man’s arrest, he managed to escaped jail and disappeared before the head prosecutor was even aware of the case.

Mr Honig said: “This highlights the paramount importance of support for the application of wildlife law in conservation projects. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index continues to rate many of the western lowland gorilla range states amongst the most corrupt nations in the world. The same countries are also home to many of the planet’s most iconic large mammals, such as chimpanzees, forest elephants, and much more.”

Northern Congo is believed to be home to the world’s densest population of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla ). These great apes are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List and commercial bushmeat hunting is considered to be a major threat to their population.

Last year PALF says an orphaned baby gorilla was found by construction workers, it was sitting among a number of dead adult gorillas along a road in the Republic of Congo. The organisation said, “a massacre like this, is not the work of a subsistence hunter trying to feed a family, but a commercial hunter, often affiliated with an organised, habitual network of bushmeat traffickers.” Another NGO is trying to reintroduce the infant back into its natural habitat.

The UN says it is working closely with the international police organisation, INTERPOL, and national governments to curb the trade in live apes, bushmeat as well as the illegal harvesting of timber.