Four poachers responsible for killing elephants in the periphery of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment by the local district court on Thursday the 22nd of November.  Leonard Beckou, the gang leader, is a repeat wildlife crime offender, having been arrested twice before in 2015 and 2016. His latest poaching raids were conducted close to local villages, sparking fear within local communities, and highlighting the negative impact of elephant poaching and the ivory trade not only on elephants, but also on people. This most recent conviction is a tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park rangers, the strong partnership with local communities and authorities, and the growing resolve of the Republic of Congo’s justice system to tackle threats to the country’s wildlife.  

Late October, as the full moon glistened over the dense canopy of the Ndoki forest, Beckou and his poaching team set up camp. They had already been hunting for several days, slaying four elephants whilst crossing vast swathes of forest to the south of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.  They were dissatisfied; the tusks were too small to cover the costs of the hunt and to compensate the risks of such a daring operation.  Weary from the long day, they settled down next to the fading campfire embers, and discussed their plans to find a large tusker the following day. A hunting rifle hung from a branch close by, and a second large caliber weapon lay next to the leader, under a tarpaulin.

At midnight, undetected, a team of park rangers silently encircled Beckou’s camp. Their poaching exploits had attracted the attention of several Park research camps and a local community - four reports of large caliber gunshots had been registered at the Park headquarters. These alerts sparked a joint operation with the local Congolese Armed Forces and police, and over the course of three days, Beckou’s gang was meticulously pursued by some of the park’s tracking specialists.  This landmark arrest follows several years of law enforcement investment, providing better training, equipment and coordination to men and women on the frontline.  As the rangers brought the poachers in to the park’s headquarters for questioning, dozens of community members rallied behind the convoy singing and chanting, saluting the rangers for not only arresting these poachers, but for also securing their lands and forest. 

The four men that Beckou recruited to accompany him into the forest were all first time offenders. Suffering financial and social difficulties, these young men were particularly vulnerable to Beckou’s illicit proposition. As the Substitute Attorney General for the Sangha department declared during his defense ‘poachers like Beckou are emptying the forest of elephants, and enticing young people into perilous situations.’

As the poaching threat escalates in the region, so does the aggressiveness of encounters between poachers and the park’s rangers.  Tonight, ranger teams will sleep out in the forest while carrying out their vital mission to protect their country’s natural heritage, in the knowledge that well-armed poaching gangs are willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on ivory. Local communities are also beginning to fear for their safety knowing that these same poachers lurk on the edges of their lands.

Leonard Beckou, Levi Bonaventure Lognangue, Bienvenu Nsimbizoina (all from the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Farvin Abegou (Republic of Congo) were all given the highest sentence for wildlife crime in Congo: five years in jail and a fine of 5,000,000 XAF each ($10,000 USD). In an unprecedented ruling the judge also declared that the four convicts would be transferred south to serve their sentences in Brazzaville, far out of sight from the northern poaching networks. All of the other wildlife crime cases brought before the district court the same day were issued the maximum penalty for wildlife crime. A WCS-led study of wildlife crime cases brought before Congo’s courts between 2008 and 2017 found an increase in maximum sentences for wildlife crime being delivered by the courts, which have proliferated in the past few years – showing a shift in the severity in which wildlife crime is now regarded in the Republic of Congo thanks to the efforts of both the Government and NGO partners.

This case demonstrates the changing threats that the area's wildlife, and the people working to protect it, are facing. Over the past decade central Africa’s forest elephants have been devastated  by an unprecedented wave of ivory poaching. Poaching gangs have become more organized, better connected and transboundary in nature. Once a rarity in the past, exchanges of gunfire between heavily armed poachers and the park's rangers are becoming frequent. Six have been recorded this year alone.

As the pace and proficiency of poaching in the area shows no sign of abating, the importance of ongoing investment in the park's protection is essential. The ranger force must be able to protect themselves from attacks by those who want to exploit the rich biodiversity of the region, and must continue to strengthen ties with the communities that they serve.

The Nouabale-Ndoki National Park, spanning 4,200 square kilometres of pristine lowland rainforest, is managed by the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, a public private partnership between the Congolese Government and WCS Congo Program. Operating under the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, Nouabale-Ndoki’s law enforcement team works to help bring wildlife criminals to justice, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, funding from the UK Government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, and the Elephant Crisis Fund - a joint initiative between Save The Elephants and the Wildlife Conservation Network, in partnership with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

For more information about WCS’s work in Congo, visit: Follow: @wcs_congo