A new UN report has confirmed that corrupt officials are at the heart of wildlife crime in many parts of the world, rather than terrorist groups or tribal peoples who hunt to feed their families.
The reports’ findings have coincided with a wave of arrests of wildlife officials across Africa and Asia, raising concerns of a global “epidemic” of poaching and corruption among armed wildlife guards who are supposed to be protecting endangered species.
Recent conservation corruption arrests include:
-A wildlife guard in Cameroon, Mpaé Désiré, and a local police chief who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the illegal ivory trade on the ancestral land of the Baka “Pygmies" and other rainforest tribes. Mr Mpaé has been accused by Baka of beating up tribespeople and torching one of their forest camps after accusing them of poaching.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been funding wildlife guards in this part of Cameroon since at least 2000, despite reports of guards arresting, beating and torturing tribal hunters.
One Baka man told Survival in 2013: “Ecoguards used to open tins of sardines and leave them as bait to attract leopards, so they could hunt them for their skins."
Another said: “The ecoguards don’t want anyone in the forest at all so that no one hears the gunshots as they poach.”
- Four park employees in India have been arrested for involvement in poaching endangered one-horned rhinos in the notorious Kaziranga reserve, where wildlife guards are encouraged to shoot on sight anyone they suspect of poaching. 62 people have been killed there in just nine years.
- A forest officer has been arrested near Kaziranga after police found a tiger skin and ivory in his house.
- In the Pench tiger reserve in central India, a guard, named in reports as Vipin Varmiya, has been arrested for killing a tiger and her two cubs.
A recent Brookings Institution Report confirmed that the big conservation organizations are failing to tackle the true poachers – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. The link between corruption and wildlife crime has also been reported in Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Indonesia.
The involvement of armed guards in poaching, in countries where militarized conservation tactics are employed, raises questions over the advisability of using violence and intimidation to protect flora and fauna. In many parts of the world, armed conservation has led to violence against local tribal peoples, including in Cameroon, and in India where summary execution in the name of conservation is in danger of becoming more widespread.
In February 2016, Survival filed an OECD complaint against the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for its involvement in funding repressive and often violent conservation projects in southeast Cameroon, rather than tackling the real poachers. Persecuting the environment’s best allies in place of real action to tackle these systemic problems is harming conservation.
Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said: “Conservation’s response to poaching has been to accuse local tribespeople when they hunt to feed their families, to support the use of shoot-to-kill policies and to blame terrorists. None of it works; it’s harming conservation. The true poachers are the criminals, including ecoguards, who conspire with corrupt officials. As the big conservation organizations partner with industry and tourism, they’re harming the environment’s best allies, the tribal peoples who have been dependent on and managed their environments for millennia. Tribespeople should be at the forefront of the environmental movement, they know who the poachers actually are, they can protect their land from logging, they protect biodiversity, and are better at looking after their environment than anyone else.”
Note: Latest reports indicate Mr Mpaé has been released from custody and is awaiting trial.
“Pygmy” is an umbrella term commonly used to refer to the hunter-gatherer peoples of the Congo Basin and elsewhere in Central Africa. The word is considered pejorative and avoided by some tribespeople, but used by others as a convenient and easily recognized way of describing themselves.