Dec 13

A huge crackdown on illegal wildlife smuggling rings in Central Africa has seen unprecedented success in recent weeks, with the arrests of key dealers and the recovery of hundreds of kilos of illegal ivory, turtle shells and animal skins.

The Last Great Ape Organisation (Laga), a wildlife law-enforcement NGO, coordinated the operations in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville. The arrests have come as part of a major regional clampdown on poachers and smugglers, with game rangers in each country patrolling remote border areas jointly with colleagues from neighbouring regions. These cross-border operations mark the first coordinated campaign of its kind, in a substantial step towards better law enforcement for the protection of endangered species.

African grey parrot

Up to a fifth of the global population of African grey parrots may be harvested annually for illegal trafficking, the pet trade and medicinal markets.

In Gabon, 16 dealers were arrested in possession of 150 kilograms of polished ivory, a haul worth close to £90,000 which was likely destined for Chinese markets. In Cameroon, three dealers trading 17 turtle shells were arrested and a cargo of 1,000 African grey parrots worth an estimated £65,000 was intercepted as it was being smuggled into Nigeria, one of the world’s most notorious routes for illegal wildlife trafficking.

Hawksbill turtle

Sea turtles, such as the hawksbill turtle, are threatened by the huge demand for their shells, and the substantial market for eggs, meat and even stuffed juveniles as exotic gifts.

Seven leopard skins, two lion skins and two tusks thought to be destined for Europe or the US were seized in the Central African Republic, hidden beneath a pile of cowhides in the dealer’s truck, while in Congo-Brazzaville, a further 30 kilograms of ivory was found on the same day.

Ofir Drori, the founder of Laga, said of the breakthrough campaign, “African governments have started realising international trafficking has to be fought internationally. These coordinated arrests in four neighbouring countries are a warning to the international trafficking rings – no longer can you hide on the other side of a border”.

Great bonfire of confiscated African elephant ivory

Elephants have been hunted over the centuries for their tusks, which are traded as ivory.

Illegal wildlife smuggling generates an estimated 10 to 20 billon US dollars each year, a figure which places the trade just behind illegal drug and firearm sales, according to the UN Congress on Crime. The network of dealers in wildlife trafficking is well established, and the smugglers may often work hand-in-hand with government officials. Corruption in Central African countries is widespread, making it one of the biggest obstacles facing wildlife law enforcement.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author