CARPE: Justice for elephants-Fighting the ivory trade in the courts of the Republic of Congo
After months of tracking one of the most notorious ivory poachers in the northern Republic of Congo, authorities finally caught the man — let’s call him “John” — in July 2016, at a road checkpoint on the edge of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. Following several thwarted attempts to bribe the court judge and other officials, John was sentenced to five years in prison — the maximum penalty for wildlife crimes in the country.
John was transferred to a jail hundreds of miles away in an effort to isolate him from his network. However, he soon escaped and was on the run again. Eventually recaptured and put back in jail, John remarkably nearly eluded justice again; prison officials lost his paperwork and were preparing to release him if it could not be recovered. Staff from the local office of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of the organizations closely involved in John’s arrest, promptly brought copies of the relevant papers to the jail, keeping the alleged poacher behind bars — for now.
Stories like this are all too common in the courtrooms and jails of Central Africa. Even as poachers and traffickers are wiping out wildlife populations and robbing local people of natural resources, pervasive corruption, inadequate funding and poor communication have turned the process of catching and sentencing criminals into a virtual game of Whack-a-Mole. Focus too much attention in one place or on one part of the system — for example, on ramping up ecoguard patrols within protected areas — and poachers will pop up in a new location, or use bribes to avoid sentencing, or escape from an overcrowded jail.