Activists in DR Congo work to bring animal traffickers to justice

The first image shows a baby bonobo saved by Conserv Congo. The second image shows a confiscated haul of bonobo hands and heads. (Photo: Adams Cassinga, Conserv Congo)
The first image shows a baby bonobo saved by Conserv Congo. The second image shows a confiscated haul of bonobo hands and heads. (Photo: Adams Cassinga, Conserv Congo)

Poaching and trafficking in the Democratic Republic of Congo have pushed many species, including gorillas, bonobos, elephants, leopards and pangolins, to near extinction. A group of committed volunteers and activists working with the Congolese NGO Conserv Congo investigate the networks that traffic animals and sometimes even confront hunters and traffickers in the hope of bringing them before justice.

The DR Congo contains more than 60% of the Congo Basin Forest, which is the second biggest rainforest in the world (after the Amazon Rainforest). It is illegal to hunt, trap and sell many of the endangered species that call this forest home.

The DR Congo is a signatory to several international conventions on the protection of wildlife and the regulation of the wildlife trade, including CITES. Signed in 1973 and adopted by 181 countries, this convention is meant to ensure that trade in wildlife and wild plants doesn’t endanger their existence.

'No one has been punished for an environmental crime in the DR Congo since the colonial era'

Despite these conventions, traffickers of wild animals often act with total impunity. That’s why Adam Cassinga founded the NGO Conserv Congo. The NGO works with a network of volunteers to help bring animal traffickers and poachers to justice. Before starting his NGO, Cassinga had a varied career, working as an investigative journalist before moving into the mining sector.


We think that the best way to get people to understand that these laws exist is to make sure that they are properly applied. There is a group of nine of us who carry out actions to this end.


We closely monitor the trafficking rings. Sometimes we pose as buyers, often using fake identities. We document as much as we can using a hidden camera. Then, we provide the police with this information so that they can catch them in the act, for example in the midst of a sale, and arrest them.


The security forces don’t do this kind of investigative work for many reasons. Firstly, they often don’t have the resources. There is also widespread corruption. Some security officials just aren’t familiar with the laws on this matter. Others still hold onto traditional beliefs. Sometimes, people ask us why we want to incarcerate people for catching a monkey when some Congolese people traditionally eat monkey meat.

Cassinga rescued this Greater spot-nosed monkey (cercopithecus nictitans)


On July 6, activists working with Conserv Congo  helped bring three bonobo traffickers to justice. These three individuals were sentenced to five months in prison as bonobos are classified as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Two of the traffickers were fined $5,000 (equivalent to 4,490 euros.)



For Cassinga, this was a first for the DR Congo.


Before this, no one had ever been punished for an environmental crime since the colonial era in the DR Congo. Since 2014, we’ve investigated around 100 cases and helped to bring about the arrests of about 50 people. In about 90% of the cases that we’ve been following, the suspects don’t even make an appearance in court  once again, due to corruption.


We had been gathering information on the bonobo traffickers since December. Two of them had a baby bonobo that they were getting ready to sell for $3,000 (equivalent to 2,700 euros). Often the animals who are sold end up in parks in Asia or in circuses.


When we save a baby bonobo, we bring it to the Lola ya bonobo shelter in Kinshasa.


The other man who was sentenced was a traditional healer who had 11 bonobo left hands and two bonobo heads in his possession. These animal parts are traditionally used for sacrifices. Sometimes people do use the heads as decoration. The traffickers prefer to sell them to foreigners, who tend to pay better. However, the most widespread use is amongst the local population, who use them for sacred rituals.

In the DR Congo, there are multiple threats to the wildlife. Some animals are hunted for their meat  mostly monkeys, but sometimes leopards as well. Some poachers sell living animals in the Gulf or across Asia to people who want exotic pets. Sometimes, things like leopard’s claws or pangolin scales are sold in Chinese markets for traditional medicine. In Europe, the most widely trafficked animal is the grey parrot.



Twelve tonnes of pangolin scales and 9 tonnes of elephants tusks


On July 22, authorities in Singapore captured 12 tonnes of pangolin scales and nine tons of elephant tusks that were being transported from the DR Congo to Vietnam. This was a record catch for the local police. For Cassinga, this represents the scale of the problem.


Without corruption, there’d be no way to get the goods out of the country and onto the market. You need to have the police, soldiers and politicians on your side to do it. Without corruption, there would be no trafficking. We receive many threats. Most aren’t from the people who we’ve had imprisoned, they are from people in power.


In late March, nine tonnes of ivory were seized in Vietnam. The good were being transported by a Congolese ship.


Conserv Congo says they don’t have the resources to deal with the situation alone. They regularly call for donations. Many of the actions the NGO carries out are financed by the volunteers themselves. They also get money from private donors and groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare.


According to a report by the NGO Traffic, between January 2016 and March 2018, only three decisions were handed down out of 35 cases involving wildlife crimes registered in courts in the DR Congo. This low number is likely due to the lack of awareness about the law on wildlife from judges and lawyers.


Interpol estimates that the illegal trade in wild animals brings in $20 billion per year (18 billion euros). Alongside the trafficking on wild animals, there is also money laundering, corruption and document fraud.


This article was written by (@maevaplt).