Congo Police, Army Accused of Elephant Poaching
KINSHASA Congo's police and fractious army have been accused of involvement in rampant elephant poaching that threatens to wipe them out from a world heritage site in the east of the former Zaire, a new study has warned.
The investigation by the Congolese Institute for Conservation of Nature estimates 17 tonnes of elephant ivory was smuggled out of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR) in the volatile Ituri district during the last six months of 2004 alone.
"Although a significant number of people are implicated in the trade, our investigations have identified just 12 people who played the role of main poachers ... they are all linked to the military and the national police," said the report, seen by Reuters.
"Unless this poaching is controlled immediately, the elephants in the OWR, which represent the last large population in the country, will soon be threatened with almost total extinction," it warned.
The poaching in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo targets the forest elephant, one of two species of elephant in Africa. They are shy and smaller than their savannah cousins and often have tattered ears from crashing through dense jungle.
"This is the worst poaching we have seen in 30 years," said John Hart, a senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international group.
"If this population is wiped out, about half of Africa's forest elephants will have been depleted," he said. "There are some others in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, but this population is the last major bastion of these elephants."
The Congo study says former Ugandan-backed MLC rebels and pro-government APC fighters, all meant to be part of a new national army, are working with the police and businessmen to kill the animals and smuggle the tusks to neighbouring Uganda.
The military was not immediately available for comment.
General Daniel Katsuva, Congo's most senior policeman, said the delay in unifying the police force after the war may be to blame for insufficient control over some officers, but he declined to speculate on the specific accusations.
"I have asked the provincial police inspector to go and speak to those accused to establish what is going on out there," he told Reuters in Congo's capital Kinshasa.
Hart said the elephant population was estimated to have dropped to between 1,000 and 2,000 from some 7,500 before Congo's five-year war, which officially ended in 2003 but has left much of the east in the grip of armed groups.
Rising Ivory Demand
According to the report, the military and the police have the blessing of local chiefs and work with villagers, who serve as porters. The elephant meat is sold in the villages, while the ivory is taken to larger towns and then moved out to Uganda.
The report says the surge in poaching is probably due to increased demand for tusks in Uganda and a subsequent rise in ivory prices towards the end of last year.
A few forest elephants are left in Ghana but populations in other West African countries, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, where elephant flesh is prized, have been decimated by hunting during years of civil war.
Trade in ivory is outlawed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). South Africa, Botswana and Namibia were granted permission in 2002 for one-off sales of stockpiled ivory, which have yet to go ahead, but Namibia failed in its bid for an annual export quota of 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) at a CITES meeting in Bangkok in October.