Upon flying into Libreville, Gabon I was greeted by lush tropical forest landscapes lining an open coastline and hot, humid temperatures. Wildlife still roam the forests, but are quickly becoming more vulnerable to poaching and trafficking, due to the increase in demand and the premium costs of ivory in illicit markets. In the forests, not far from the capital, poachers are mounting on camelback and illegally crossing national borders, armed with weapons, such as AK-47s and grenade launchers.
These poachers are threatening not only biodiversity, but also national security, and sustainable economic development to the region. The recent massacre of hundreds of forest elephants in Cameroon by poachers required national military action, which further reinforces the urgency for governments in the region to respond swiftly and to effectively work together to combat poaching and wildlife trafficking. In many cases, the same illicit networks that perpetrate the poaching and trafficking of wildlife are also engaged in other forms of transnational criminal activity such as money laundering, corruption, and trafficking in arms and narcotics.
The Sub-Regional Workshop on Wildlife Trafficking and Dismantling Transnational Illicit Networks brought together seven Central African countries from April 3-5. This workshop was held in a timely manner due to the recent poaching threats in Cameroon and the Central African Republic. Funding support was provided by the Gabonese government and the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Approximately 150 law enforcement and conservation government officials as well as representatives from non-governmental and international organizations gathered together for three days of a productive and practical dialogue in support of building a regional wildlife enforcement network (WEN) to combat wildlife trafficking. Government representatives from China and Southeast Asia also participated and collaborated with workshop participants to strengthen international cooperation and target both demand and supply chains of illicit wildlife trafficking networks. Participants were encouraged - in coordination with national efforts -- to protect their biodiversity by leveraging partnerships to include participating non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs) from outside of the region for assistance in dismantling illicit networks.
The workshop facilitated the exchange of information and shared best practices to foster and develop innovative responses to stem the poaching and cross-border trafficking of endangered and protected wildlife through the implementation of a whole-of-government approach at the national levels as well as working with government and law enforcement counterparts across borders. During the breakout sessions, senior government officials, NGOs, IOs, and other participants contributed to an open and practical dialogue on a threats and intervention analysis on law enforcement practices, wildlife trade management, legal frameworks and criminal justice procedures across countries and jurisdictions.
In concluding the workshop, the Ministers of Water and Forests from Gabon and the Central African Republic highlighted their commitment to combat poaching and trafficking of wildlife and urged for stronger law enforcement efforts, greater international cooperation, and a regional approach to address the issues. A draft resolution was proposed at the workshop with recommendations that were formulated by the Central Africans to support establishing and implementing a Central African regional wildlife enforcement network. The participants at the workshop agreed to enhance coordination between law enforcement authorities in source, transit, and destination countries to tackle cross-border and transnational organized criminal activities. As a follow-up activity, there will be a wildlife investigations training course at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Gaborone in June with instruction led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for investigators coming from ILEA participating countries that attended the workshop. In addition, the Gabonese government will continue to highlight its commitment to combating the illegal trade of wildlife by burning its ivory stockpiles in the coming months.