A large number of protected animal species like lions, elephants and gorillas continues to disappear at an alarming rate in the jungles of Africa, primarily because of the activities of “industrial traffickers” who violate wildlife laws with impunity.
The traffickers are encouraged in their criminality by the flourishing trade mostly in China and Asia in the body parts of these animals.
Efforts by organisations like WWF and Greenpeace have helped in creating awareness about the dangers of losing these animals forever, but done little else to stop the trade.
In 2004, things began to change when former Israeli soldier and writer Ofir Drori created a law enforcement organisation, The Last Great Ape (LAGA) in Cameroon, which spies on, helps in getting traffickers arrested, and puts them behind prison bars.
Charlotte Houpline, a passionate French wildlife activist, saw the practicality of the LAGA approach, created WARA, a French organization for the protection of wildlife. She now has two branches of the organisation in Guinea Conakry known in French as Guinea- Application de la Loi Faunique (GALF) and another branch in Senegal
Last week GALF celebrated when it succeeded in getting Ousmane Diallo, one of the most notorious Guinea Conakry traffickers sentenced to one year in prison, for wildlife crimes in a Guinean Court.
Francis Ngwa has been talking to her following the landmark case:
Q. Do you think the conviction of Ousmane Diallo helps in the fight against poaching in Guinea Conakry significantly?
A. I hope so. This sentence will not solve the problem of the traffic in protected species in Guinea, it will take time.
This is only the beginning; it’s necessary to continue the fight against wildlife crime in order to have a real impact, and that’s what we’ll do. We need to have a lot of traffickers behind bars to deter others from continuing the trade!
Many people think it’s a lost battle because the challenge is enormous and the situation is chaotic. Imagine how difficult it is to start applying the law in a very politically unstable country that is among the most corrupt in the world. There is very little justice in Guinea.
Since the launch of GALF in March 2012, we have had some failures. Our actions have led to the arrests of 23 people. Seven received a minimal three months sentence. The figures are not encouraging for now but things will hopefully improve. Before we started operations, the wildlife law was never applied in Guinea so the fact that there have been some arrests and imprisonment is a good thing. The Guinean government helped us in getting these convictions which is a very positive sign.
Following the conviction of Ousmane Diallo to one year imprisonment, we have won a big battle in the fight against impunity in Guinea and it is the first time someone is sentenced to the maximum term allowed by the law.
Corruption is rife in the system, the criminals are well organised but we must stand up against them; we need to stand up for what we believe in no matter how difficult things are. We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated by organised criminal networks.
Q. Why are you so passionate about the protection of animals in Africa?
A. I am motivated by my deep love for nature and conservation. As a child, I fell in love with big cats. (Lions, Leopards) I watched all reports on TV about these species, and always felt uncomfortable to read how some were being killed for their skin
That’s when I decided to dedicate my life to protect cats and African wildlife. My love for these animals and knowing that the activities of man against them will lead to their extinction made me to resolve to take an active role in their protection. I did not want to be a biologists to research about species that will soon get extinct, I wanted to be an activist that will help stop poachers from killing them. By the time I was 10 years old, I already knew what I needed to do to protect animals. After studying wildlife conservation, I travelled to West Africa when I was 21 and invested my time and money in a project to conserve lions. Ten years later, I met Ofir Drori, Director of LAGA in Cameroon. He was doing exactly what I always wanted to do to protect wild cats which is send those poaching them to prison.
Q. Why did you decide to adopt the LAGA model in the fight to protect wildlife in Africa?
A. Ofir’s LAGA model effectively targets the problem. The only way to protect animals is to implement the law. If criminals know nothing will happen to them, they will just continue killing all animals. If they get prison terms and fines for poaching, they will think twice before doing that. The best way to defeat the bad guys is to put the big dealers behind bars. That is why I replicated the model in Guinea and will do the same thing in Senegal.
Guinea became a hub for wildlife crime and the fact that criminals were not prosecuted helped develop the trade very quickly.
The LAGA model is good because you include the fight against corruption in conservation. Corruption has always been the main obstacle in the application of the wildlife law since the dealers are rich enough to bribe corrupt officials. We therefore fight against corruption at all levels, in court, in the police force and among dealers.
Fight corruption and putting dealers behind bars are the cornerstone of conservation. Current conservation methods have failed so it was time to adopt a radical approach to the problem. Organising workshops and sensitisation are just inadequate in protecting wild animals.
The LAGA model is working effectively in Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Guinea, Togo and three other countries. More than 900 traffickers have been sent to prison through the work of LAGA inspired organisations in these countries.
Q. What are your long term goals?
A. We will continue fighting to protect wildlife for as long as that is possible. I do not want to live in a world without lions and elephants!
There is still a lot of work to do. Look at the state of conservation of the lion, it is disastrous, the species is critically endangered, there are less than 30,000 lions living on the entire African continent.
In recent years, we have witnessed the widespread slaughter of elephants in all countries because of the ivory trade. In 2011 alone, approximately 40 tons of illegal ivory were seized in the world, representing thousands of elephants killed. Forest elephants are on the brink of extinction if nothing is done.
And many other species will also disappear if nothing is done now. Because of greed, we will see most animals disappear forever. Our work involves some amount of risk but somebody has to do it.
Q. How will you describe yourself to someone who has never met you?
A. I am an activist in the service of nature.