DRC stockpiles fuel illegal wildlife trade
Jonas Kiriko, Mail & Guardian
September 3, 2023
Almost every month, the national police, customs services and the Congolese
Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) conduct seizures of
protected wildlife species and ivory. Border posts, car parks, airports,
ports, hotels and private homes are among the places where these seizures
are reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
But, because of corruption and the lack of adequate mechanisms for storage
and traceability, these objects remain for lengthy periods on the premises
of the institutions that seized them, exposing them to repeat thefts by
To put an end to this situation, wildlife protection activists are urging
the government to create several reserves to accommodate rescued wildlife,
strengthen the security of existing reserves, and start burning ivory and
other seized wildlife items to prevent them from returning into the illegal
One of the record seizures was recorded at Uvira in South Kivu province in
December 2022. Almost half a tonne of ivory — equivalent to about 20
elephants slaughtered — was seized and two suspects were arrested,
according to officials at Kahuzi Biega National Park.
Some of the ivory bore markings (place, weight and date), suggesting they
were objects stolen from a stockpile somewhere in the DRC — the subject of
a previous seizure or storage.
Traffickers also sometimes use fake permits or mark the ivory themselves in
an attempt to deceive officials that it was part of an authorised
operation, according to an environmental activist based in Uvira, who asked
for anonymity to protect himself.
Despite the arrests, the destination of the seized ivory is not known, said
Josué Aruna, president of the environmental civil society of South Kivu.
“In this case, it is likely to return to the black market, since nothing
has been heard about the destination. Nothing indicates that it was handed
over to the ICCN, or transferred to Kinshasa [the capital],” Aruna said.
In July 2021 in Butembo, a large urban centre located near the Virunga
National Park in the province of North Kivu, an operation by ICCN to shadow
an alleged poacher failed. As a result about 50kg of ivory ended up in the
hands of local inhabitants, according to police estimates.
In Lubumbashi, further south in the province of Haut Katanga, baby
chimpanzees were stolen from a sanctuary. The kidnappers demanded$200,000
from the sanctuary owner before handing over the animals.
Examples multiply where police stations or ranger patrol posts are attacked
and dispossessed of seized objects, or even release detainees including
poachers and traffickers. These attacks are reportedly the work of local
and foreign armed groups that are active in and near national parks and
protected areas in the DRC.
Since the end of 2022, the southern part of Virunga National Park has been
largely under the control of the M23 rebels as well as the Nyantura police.
As a result, monitoring of the gorilla groups has stopped.
This lack of surveillance increases poaching and exposes baby gorillas to
trapping by poachers, worries Bienvenu Bwende, who is in charge of
communication at Virunga National Park. He added that in the centre of the
park the Mai Mai and FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda)
militias attack the park’s fauna and flora, while in the north there is the
threat of the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) rebel group.
Kivu Security Tracker, a project of New York University’s Congo Study Group
and Human Rights Watch, lists more than half a dozen armed groups that
practise illegal cross-border trade between the DRC and Uganda. Revenues
generated by trafficking of the park’s natural resources are estimated at
$175-million a year, and more than 100 000 people derive a direct
livelihood from these illegal activities.
Between 2017 and 2020, an estimated $50 million contributed to the
enrichment of militias and armed groups, according to the tracker.
Effective security systems are lacking in the DRC’s reserves and other
protected areas. Sanctuaries managed by private individuals organise their
own security, and national parks are protected by often understaffed and
ill-equipped eco-guards. This predisposes them to intrusions by poachers
from armed groups, illegal miners and loggers, and wildlife traffickers.
Some authorities are also part of these illegal groups.
Anicet (an alias) has trafficked in elephant tusks. In a village located in
the Beni territory, North Kivu province near Virunga National Park, he is
known as a butcher specialising in the sale of beef. He testifies that,
given the resemblance between ox horns and ivory, it is easy to pass one
off as the other without being detected by the police or other state
“To move our herds, we leave at night to allow the animals to move long
distances without getting tired. I took the opportunity more than once to
transport ivory to big cities like Butembo without anyone noticing,” said
this man in his 40s.
During the 18th session of the Conference of the Parties for the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, held
in Sri Lanka in 2019, CITES said it is “aware of a number of thefts of
ivory from government-held stockpiles in recent years” around the world.
National efforts to combat poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife
products are hindered by decentralised management of existing ivory stocks
and challenges in tracing the origins of some stocks. A 2020 report by
Traffic, an international organisation fighting against the trafficking of
fauna and flora, affirms the fact that in the DRC, “there is no national
system for managing ivory stocks”.
Instead, the ivory is dispersed within several state structures, including
the Central Bank of Congo, the patrol posts of the ICCN, the General
Directorate of Customs and Excise, the courts and tribunals, police
stations, and provincial or local environmental services. This
decentralisation predisposes the ivory to theft and corruption, because
each service involved in a seizure can keep the ivory or cash for an
In 2022, CITES DRC released a progress report on the implementation of its
National Ivory Action Plan, stating that DRC was “on track” in regards to
“inventorying existing ivory stocks and developing, at the national level,
a reliable system for the storage and management of confiscated ivory”. But
it provided no other details on this progress.
Two years after the publication of the Traffic report, there is still no
centralised storage mechanism in the DRC for illegal wildlife products.
The DRC’s national legal and regulatory framework does not address the
management of ivory stocks. But, in practice, protected wildlife
commodities such as ivory that are seized or found on the carcasses of dead
elephants or on the ground are entrusted to the ICCN.
“This institution stores it in its offices and/or sites while waiting to
consign them to the Mint of the Central Bank of Congo, which would hold
fairly large stocks of ivory,” according to the Traffic report. “Other
ivory is stored in the prosecutors’ offices, customs warehouses, provincial
environmental coordination offices, or even in the stations of the various
protected areas (products seized by guards during anti-poaching patrols) of
the ICCN. The stocks held are not inventoried and no exact figure has, to
date, been given or the way in which they are kept.”
The 2014 Congolese law relating to the conservation of nature provides in
its article 83 that “the specimens and products, as well as the objects
used in the commission of offences against this law, are confiscated and
entrusted to the public body responsible for conservation”.
But the law did not clearly mention the specific body that should ensure
the custody of the seized objects. In article 36, instead, the law mandated
that “the province sets up a public body whose mission is to manage
protected areas of provincial and local interest. A decree deliberated in
the Council of Ministers or an order of the provincial governor, as the
case may be, fixes the status.”
The name of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, which
was created in 1975 and modified in 2010, does not appear in this law as
the body responsible for storing seized objects, although the ICCN’s
establishment was prior to the passing of the wildlife law.
In addition, the law provides for the establishment of similar bodies at
the provincial level for the management of protected areas of provincial
and local interest. This suggests that the legislation was planning for the
establishment of new future bodies to manage wildlife items.
“When it comes to biodiversity, it is often very difficult, in a corrupt
judicial system, to bring evidence before a judge,” said Olivier Ndoole,
who has worked as an environmental and land lawyer in the DRC for 10 years.
“Currently, with corruption, we happen to contribute to the arrests of
poachers with elephant meat for example, but tomorrow before the judge,
this meat or the remains will be declared as belonging to a goat. These are
cases that we have encountered.
“It is the same for the flora. An individual can be arrested making embers
in the park or in a protected area. But, in court, we have to prove the
difference between the embers that come from the park and those from
elsewhere to really prove that they come from the park,” he said.
This view is supported by wildlife activist Adams Cassinga, who founded
Conserv Congo, a local conservation NGO. Using a network of about 100 focal
points (agents) across the DRC, Conserv Congo carries out investigations
into crimes against fauna and flora in the Congo Basin.
“In fact, it is a phenomenon that we have never understood. And, it gets
tough when there’s a dark hand behind it,” Cassinga said. He added that he
has examples, but won't go public due to fear for his safety.
The fight for conservation also comes up against influence peddling — the
use of position in exchange for money or favours — which is common in the
DRC, Cassinga said. “The people who are supposed to know and contribute to
the protection of wild species, in reality they don’t know.
"This ignorance is even rooted in our leaders, who are supposed to tell us
what to do about it. All because conservation, like the rest of the sectors
in the DRC, is always politicised,” Cassinga added.
According to him, in the DRC sectors that should be managed by scientists
or technicians, such as the conservation of fauna and flora, are prejudiced
by the interference of politicians. This makes it difficult to fight
wildlife crime and wildlife trafficking.
For five months during the course of our #WildEye Eastern Africa
investigation, we attempted to acquire data on court cases of wildlife
crime in DRC from various authorities, including police, courts, customs
services, airports, ICCN and CITES DRC, to no avail. This quest included
multiple meetings with the managers of these services and their
communication officers, where unfulfilled promises were made to share the
For the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where a state of siege has been
in place since May 2021, all cases under investigation by the civil courts
have been transferred to the criminal courts. The latter were overwhelmed
by piles of files to process, which meant that our requests fell on deaf
ears. This despite the passing in March 2023 of a new law in the DRC on the
exercise of freedom of the press. In its article 96, this law obliges any
holder of information of public interest to make it available to media
The #WildEye Eastern Africa map by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental
Journalism in partnership with InfoNile tracked 134 cases of wildlife crime
in the DRC between 2017 and 2023. But most cases stopped at arrests and did
not document the status of court cases and convictions. Many traffickers of
illegal wildlife were arrested as they were en route to Uganda through
eastern DRC cities and towns, including Butembo, Beni, Goma, Bukavu, and
Garamba National Park on the border of South Sudan.
According to Traffic, it is necessary to define a national management
system for elephant ivory stocks for the DRC, taking into account the
various sources of ivory, the services competent to collect them, the
measurements and marking, recording, storage and securing of stocks, and
tools and means for good management. The system should also include regular
The same is true for other wild species, for which reserves must be
created, according to the NGO. In addition, there is a need to strengthen
the security of existing reserves. For example, the headquarters of Virunga
National Park in Rumangabo houses the Senkwekwe Centre, the only facility
in the world for orphaned mountain gorillas. Each of these orphans has lost
its family as a result of poaching. They are now cared for by expert staff
who provide daily care.
As far as policies are concerned, in 2015 the DRC developed the National
Ivory Action Plan. Its overall objective is to “strengthen the fight
against elephant poaching and illicit trafficking in ivory and other
elephant specimens in collaboration with all relevant actors”. This plan
revolves around seven specific objectives, including that of “improving the
system of management and traceability of ivory stock in the DRC. If this
plan is implemented, positive progress can be made in the future.”
For Adams Cassinga, awareness must be raised to educate the entire
Congolese community about the endemic species that the country abounds in
and the need to protect them. He proposes drawing inspiration from Kenya
and other countries in Southern Africa which, instead of keeping ivory
without any assurance of protecting it, incinerates it. This will prevent
it from falling back into the illegal circuit, he said.
For his part, Olivier Ndoole believes that it is necessary to restore the
authority of the state, not only in protected areas, but also throughout
the national territory. According to him, the black economy of illicit
trafficking around Virunga feeds armed groups who promote poaching, cutting
wood for embers and fishing illegally on Lake Edward.
Ndoole also encourages education of local communities to help them become
“intelligence agents” in the fight against crime around fauna and flora.
To fight against poaching and wildlife trafficking, Conserv Congo has
already initiated several community projects in livestock and agroforestry.
They are found in the Bateke plateau on the outskirts of Kinshasa, in
Mokoto in the province of Tshuapa, and in Ikoma in the province of South
Kivu. Here, Conserv Congo supports the local communities to practise
livestock farming and agroforestry to give them alternative livelihoods
instead of poaching and contribute to the preservation of forests and food
security in households.
“The objective is to dissuade those who can go into the forest to become a
poacher to choose breeding. But also, people in rural areas live only on
bushmeat. If someone tells you that they ate meat, you must immediately
think of bushmeat. Thus, we allow them to have access to meat near their
homes with the aim of contributing to food security,” said Cassinga.
Conserv Congo plans to set up a similar initiative soon in Sake near
Virunga National Park in North Kivu province.
As part of this investigation, we collected the testimony of a former
poacher who now works as a journalist at a community radio station
broadcasting from Kyavinyonge, a fishery on Lake Edward located in Beni
territory in the province of North Kivu, in the heart of Virunga Park.
He said poaching is often considered the main source of income for the
poacher, with the meat intended both for sale and home consumption. He only
abandoned the practice after becoming aware of the dangers involved in
poaching. This awareness has now been reinforced by recognising the need to
conserve wild species for the good of the whole community.
“In radio broadcasts as well as in public speaking forums organised here at
home by the partner organisations of Virunga Park, I have been made to
understand that if I kill a hippopotamus, I contribute to lake infertility,
on whom several families in my locality depend. I also understood that
tourism can generate a lot of jobs here at home, if we do not kill the
species that are in the park,” he confided.
This former poacher insisted on the urgency of giving jobs to the
inhabitants around the protected areas to dissuade them from violating the
parks and getting involved in the illicit trafficking of ivory and wild
Today, with his microphone and through the Kinande language mainly spoken
in the region, he sensitises his community and raises awareness to lead the
protection of fauna and flora, for his own good and that of all humanity.
This story was supported by InfoNile, in collaboration with the Oxpeckers
#WildEye Eastern Africa project, with funding from Earth Journalism
Network's Biodiversity Media Initiative project.