February 01, 2010
An interview with Naftali Honig, director of Projet d'Appui à l'Application de la Loi sur la Faune in Republic of Congo.
But the days of privilege may be drawing to a close in Republic of Congo thanks to the efforts of PALF [Projet d'Appui à l'Application de la Loi sur la Faune], a Brazzaville-based NGO which is working to build the capacity of Congolese authorities to enforce wildlife laws. In the process, PALF is helping root out corruption and raise awareness of the plight of the country's increasingly threatened wildlife, including forest elephants, big cats, chimps, and gorillas.
Confiscated leopard skin and the gorilla hands in Pointe-Noire (photo by Naftali Honig). Honig says that police in Republic of Congo often don't have equipment like cameras for documenting seizures.
PALF is also working on education and outreach through the media, making people aware that there are consequences for trafficking wildlife.
"Disseminating information to promote awareness of environmental issues is always an important aspect of conservation," Honig said. "Our way of doing that is giving the public legal background information."
During a January 2010 interview with mongabay.com, Honig discussed PALF's efforts and the challenges of enforcing wildlife laws in Central Africa.
AN INTERVIEW WITH NAFTALI HONIG
Mongabay: What is PALF's approach to conservation?
Naftali Honig: The application of wildlife laws is one of many tools in conservation, and is surprisingly new in Central Africa. With existing wildlife laws that, on paper, look like a formidable means of protection for Congo's fauna, the application of these laws can really affect the response of those breaking them. There are many places within the legal system where the law can be evaded in one way or another, so all too often criminals feel at ease breaking the national law when it comes to wildlife trafficking. Our approach is to assist in the application of the wildlife laws so that people will stop commercializing illegal wildlife products and quit feeling immune to punishment. More concretely, we work with investigators and local authorities to catch criminals in the act and then follow the legal proceedings to ensure that they don't use a phone call, a bribe, or anything of that nature to illegitimately get themselves off the hook.
Mongabay: What led you to get involved in this line of work?
Contraband wildlife products in Brazzaville (photo by PALF).
Mongabay: What are the major trafficking activities in the region? Who is involved in the trade?
Naftali Honig: In Central Africa, illegal bushmeat commercialization is still devastating wildlife populations. The region's ivory trade is also surprisingly active. Orphaned chimpanzees and gorillas (by-products of illegal bushmeat hunting themselves) are still illegally sold as pets. Leopard skins are traded, sometimes even openly, despite laws theoretically offering high levels of protection and steep penalties for all levels of the trade, from hunters to middlemen to salesmen. All the different trafficking activities have the potential to exist both nationally and internationally. In recent months, our cases have demonstrated the diversity. To cite a few examples, three men were caught smuggling ivory across the Congo River from Kinshasa, DRC into Brazzaville; a woman citizen was caught selling a leopard skin and gorilla hands in a local market; currently, our legal team is working on a case involving a Chinese man caught in possession of ivory. We understand that there is still high demand in Asia for ivory, so such cases, rare as they are to see in the courts now, may be on the rise. An important aspect of PALF is that even if the person involved in the trade holds a high position or is a foreigner, national law still applies and so we want to make sure that big players do not see themselves as being above the law because of connections or financial capability to bribe their way out of punishment.
Mongabay: What are the some of the challenges of working in Congo? Are there difficulties in keeping convicted traffickers in jail after they are sentenced?
Seized ivory in a police station in Pointe-Noire. Photos by Luc Mathot, founder of PALF.
Mongabay: How is wildlife law enforcement currently funded in Congo?
Naftali Honig: PALF itself is funded by foreign donors, and for the time being, there seems to be a lot of interest in wildlife law enforcement. The movement started in Cameroon with the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), whose years of experience have continued to demonstrate how deep wildlife trade actually goes. The Congolese government partially supports certain aspects of wildlife law enforcement in a range of projects, but for the time being the truth of working in poorer nations is that conservation is not top priority, so support will have to continue to come from the outside. PALF is very budget conscious, following the precedent set by LAGA. Also, our form of activism goes even beyond wildlife because we are also fighting corruption, which as we can see is such a massive impediment to conservation. So broadly, I think the idea is positive enough that it will hold the attention of donors wanting to see change in a system under which conservation has suffered unnecessarily in the past.
Mongabay: What is the role of public outreach in reducing the wildlife trade?
Seized wildlife products in Brazzaville (photo by PALF).
Mongabay: How can people in Europe and the United States help your efforts?
Naftali Honig: Some of the illegal wildlife trade goes to European markets, so people can report these instances to the appropriate authorities. If traffickers are caught in Europe and the United States with illegal wildlife products, there is a chance to catch others involved at both ends. People can lobby and tell their governments to support wildlife law enforcement. People can always send us questions or information about related issues at naftalihonig (at) palf-enforcement.org as well, as wildlife law enforcement is a broad area and so there's plenty of room for good ideas.
PALF> (an affiliate of The Last Great Ape Organization - LAGA)