Odzala-Kokoua National Park’s eco-guard unit, now with former poachers in its ranks, have won two major victories in the battle against ivory poaching in the Congo within the last couple months.
The first was in July, when a Congolese regional ivory kingpin was arrested and convicted, and the second involved the arrest of an alleged major Chinese ivory trader in October. This is following the launch of Odzala’s inaugural “poacher-to-protector” amnesty program at the end of last year.
The program – news of which was spread by existing eco-guards and official letters to the chiefs of villages in the area – offered amnesty to any ivory poachers who were willing to enter the program, hand over their illegal weapons and provide written statements detailing their previous crimes.
As part of the amnesty programme, members were allowed to take part in a selection and training programme for new eco-guards in the park. Altogether there were 56 former poachers who applied for the amnesty programme, and 45 who successfully completed the rigorous selection and training course.
Of the 45 who were successful, 28 have since been employed as fully fledged eco-guards while a further 17 have been employed as eco-monitors, whose duties include research and the monitoring and performance of law enforcement functions within the park.
Statements provided by five of the amnesty applicants were used in court to convict major regional ivory kingpin, Ngondjo Ghislain (also known by the nick-name “Pepito”). “Pepito” was convicted in July and is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.
Another group of eco-guards – also comprising former poachers – identified and arrested an alleged Chinese ivory trader and his driver, also a Chinese national on the 15th of October 2013. The trader was found to be in possession of three pieces of ivory.
Further evidence of the success of Odzala’s anti-poaching unit arose during the ivory trader’s arrest, when he unsuccessfully tried to bribe a member. The trader and his driver were instead transported to the police station in Ouesso the following day to make their official statements. Both were charged but released, and the case is currently before the country’s national prosecutor.
One of the successful Odzala amnesty program members, and now newly appointed member of the park’s eco-guard unit, is a pygmy man who has offered to recruit other pygmy hunters in the area for the park’s second amnesty programme.
“While poaching is a more lucrative occupation than being an eco-guard, the amnesty recruits were attracted by the benefits of a stable, legal job with social security benefits,” said African Parks’s manager for Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Leon Lamprecht. “Some also admitted that Odzala’s anti-poaching efforts were making it increasingly difficult for them to continue hunting illegally and avoid arrest.”
Prior to African Parks taking on the management of Odzala, the central area of the park had not been patrolled for four years. Since then, African Parks has implemented an effective, multi-pronged anti-poaching plan to address threats to the park. Plans are also in motion to launch a second amnesty programme – coupled with a recruitment drive for new eco-guards – in February 2014.
In addition, there are future plans to set up a permanent eco-guard training facility at Odzala in 2014, with funding provided by the US-based Richardson Foundation.