(Right Photo) Ivory, weapons, and equipment seized from the poaching gang. Photo Credit Forrest Hogg/WCS
Four poachers responsible for killing elephants in the periphery of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, were sentenced to five years imprisonment by the local district court.
Leonard Beckou, the gang leader, is a repeat wildlife criminal offender, having been arrested twice before in 2015 and 2016. His latest poaching raids were conducted close to local villages, sparking fear within local communities, and highlighting the negative impact of elephant poaching and the ivory trade, not only on elephants, but also on people.
According to a World Conservation Society (WCS) statement, this most recent conviction is a tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park rangers, the strong partnership with local communities and authorities, and the growing resolve of the Republic of Congo’s justice system to tackle threats to the country’s wildlife.
Beckou and his poaching team set up camp in October. They had already been hunting for several days, slaying four elephants while crossing vast swathes of forest to the south of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.
Dissatisfied with the small size of the tusks, they decided to find a large tusker the following day.
At midnight, undetected, a team of park rangers silently encircled Beckou’s camp. A joint operation with the local Congolese Armed Forces and police, and over the course of three days, Beckou’s gang was meticulously pursued by some of the park’s tracking specialists.
This landmark arrest follows several years of law enforcement investment, providing better training, equipment and coordination to men and women on the frontline.
As the rangers brought the poachers in to the park’s headquarters for questioning, dozens of community members rallied behind the convoy singing and chanting, saluting the rangers for not only arresting these poachers, but for also securing their lands and forest.
The four men that Beckou recruited to accompany him into the forest were all first time offenders. As the Substitute Attorney General for the Sangha department declared during his defense ‘poachers like Beckou are emptying the forest of elephants, and enticing young people into perilous situations.’
As the poaching threat escalates in the region, so does the aggressiveness of encounters between poachers and the park’s rangers. Local communities are also beginning to fear for their safety, knowing that these same poachers lurk on the edges of their lands.
Leonard Beckou, Levi Bonaventure Lognangue, Bienvenu Nsimbizoina (all from the Democratic Republic of Congo), as well as Farvin Abegou, all received the highest sentence for wildlife crime in Congo: five years in jail and a fine of $10,000 USD which is not nearly enough.
In an unprecedented ruling, the judge also declared that the four convicts would be transferred south to serve their sentences in Brazzaville, far out of sight from the northern poaching networks.
All of the other wildlife crime cases brought before the district court the same day, were also issued the maximum penalty for wildlife crime.
A WCS study of wildlife crime cases brought before Congo’s courts between 2008 and 2017, found an increase in maximum sentences for wildlife crime being delivered by the courts, which have proliferated in the past few years; showing a shift in the severity in which wildlife crime is now regarded in the Republic of Congo, thanks to the efforts of both the Government and NGO partners.
This case demonstrates the changing threats that the area’s wildlife, and people working to protect it face. Over the past decade, central Africa’s forest elephants have been devastated by an unprecedented wave of ivory poaching. Poaching gangs have become more organized, better connected and trans-boundary in nature. Once a rarity in the past, exchanges of gunfire between heavily armed poachers and the park’s rangers are becoming more frequent. Six have been recorded this year alone.
The pace and proficiency of poaching in the area shows no sign of abating. The importance of ongoing investment in the park’s protection is essential. The ranger force must be able to protect themselves from attacks by those who want to exploit the rich biodiversity of the region, and must continue to strengthen ties with the communities that they serve.
The Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, spanning 4,200 square kilometres of pristine lowland rainforest, is managed by the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, a public private partnership between the Congolese Government and WCS Congo Program.
Operating under the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, Nouabale-Ndoki’s law enforcement team works to help bring wildlife criminals to justice, with support from The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, The UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, and The Elephant Crisis Fund – a joint initiative between Save The Elephants and the Wildlife Conservation Network, in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.