By Derek Mead
In the last couple years, increased attention has been paid to the connection between wildlife trafficking and militancy, with Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army being one notable example. Now, the UN Security Council has taken steps to break that link. Yesterday, the council agreed to renew sanctions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, and included express penalties for wildlife trafficking in its resolution.
The Security Council's resolution is aimed at quelling ongoing conflicts in the country through the use of an arms embargo and related actions. In a release, the council says that it "demanded, by the text, that the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and various Mayi Mayi groups immediately cease all violence, disband permanently and demobilize children from their ranks."
As a whole, the proceedings were highly contentious, with Rwanda's representative taking particular offense over the final resolution, which will remain in place until Feb. 1, 2015. (Reuters' headline sums it up best: "Rwanda calls Congo 'crybaby' at U.N., Congo says Rwanda 'arrogant.'" But notable amid the geopoliticking is the council's language regarding wildlife trafficking.
The DRC, and especially its massive Garamba National Park, is home to a wealth of wildlife, but has been plagued by poaching. The opening section of the resolution notes "the linkage between the illegal exploitation of natural resources, including poaching and illegal trafficking of wildlife, illicit trade in such resources, and the proliferation and trafficking of arms as one of the major factors fueling and exacerbating conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa."
Additionally, under a list of persons who could face punishment under UN sanctions that includes militants and people recruiting child soldiers, the council listed "individuals or entities supporting armed groups in the DRC through illicit trade of natural resources, including gold or wildlife as well as wildlife products."
Together, the language makes an important statement: wildlife trafficking funds conflict. The reverse is also likely true: Garamba was once home to the northern white rhino, but the subspecies has long disappeared from the region amidst conflict. Two-thirds of Africa's forest elephants, which call the DRC and surrounding countries home, have disappeared in the last ten years.
In fact, the UN has pegged poaching rates in the DRC as potentially being even higher, according to a 2013 Enough Project report linking the LRA to elephant killing in Garamba:
"The United Nations estimates that there may have already been a 50 percent to 90 percent decrease in the elephant populations of the CAR and DRC. Park rangers in Garamba suspect that members of the Congolese, South Sudanese, Sudanese, and Ugandan armed forces, as well as state-sponsored militias including the Janjaweed from Darfur, are participating in killing the park’s elephants at an accelerating pace. The LRA’s involvement in the trade is particularly troubling since the resources it gains from ivory supports its continuing violence, undermining the international community’s efforts to dismantle the group."
The attention has produced action, as well as a shift in the way the wildlife trafficking problem has been addressed. The militancy-poaching connection was the subject of a key 2011 report in PLOS One focusing on the DRC's Okapi Reserve. It was later laid bare in a great 2012 report from the New York Times, which showed how Garamba wildlife rangers are routinely outmatched by heavily armed militant groups, during a year that saw media attention on poaching ramp up.
That November, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced that combating wildlife trafficking was a priority for the State Department. Last year, current Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the problem while still a senator, saying that wildlife trafficking had become a security issue. Most recently, the White House pledged to take wildlife trafficking more seriously, while key nations along the ivory trade route agreed to a new plan for cracking down on traffickers.
Why does that matter? With the UN continuing to tie militants and poaching together, it's yet another sign that anti-poaching efforts will receive more attention and funding than environmental causes tend to get from the international community. Wildlife advocates say it's a big win.
“Individuals involved in poaching and trafficking of wildlife are now singled out for sanctions where the proceeds of their activities have been used to finance conflict,” WWF's Wendy Elliott said in a release. “This is a huge step forward for reducing human suffering, improving peace and security and strengthening wildlife conservation.”