Wildlife Crime in Cameroon and Operations' Impact

Categories: Gorilla Journal, Journal no. 37, Bushmeat, Cameroon, Western Lowland Gorilla

Abong Mbang, January 2008 (© LAGA)

Abong Mbang, January 2008 (© LAGA)

Illegal trade in apes is an issue that has suffered from great confusion and lack of knowledge for a very long time. While endless popular bushmeat studies keep on replicating themselves, the trade is an issue that has been largely ignored in research. One of the reasons for this is the lack of a credible database. LAGA (the Last Great Ape Organization) is the first wildlife law enforcement NGO in Africa. It leads wildlife law enforcement investigations and follows cases right up to the point of prosecution, at a rate of one major wildlife dealer behind bars per week. It now possesses an extensive database of more than 200 court cases, which thus offers a unique reliability as it is validated by court procedures and prosecutions. Beyond the number of operations and their effectiveness there is an even more important factor in evaluating LAGA's work - the strategic value of the operations in reducing the level of illegal wildlife trade. The operations which LAGA has been choosing to follow up are a diversified set of cases, including several in Cameroon which carry an additional value for exposing and mapping the different angles of wildlife crime in that country. Consequently, the work of LAGA and MINFOF (Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife) has shed light on the nature of illegal wildlife trade in the sub-region. Our strategic focus on apes and other threatened primates for 2007 and the first half of 2008 were as follows:

The return of the "Taiping Four" gorillas marked another victory in a long fight against a different level of illegal trade in wildlife. It attracted huge public attention. One of the press releases called it "one of the most high-profile cases of animal trafficking in history". This affair exposes a different angle in combating illegal trade in apes: the political fight against the international players of the trade. The "Taiping Four" are four gorillas that were smuggled from Cameroon to Nigeria to the Taiping Zoo in Malaysia, which paid 1.6 million US$ in this illegal deal. Ever since the discovery of this affair by the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in 2002, Cameroon has been demanding the return of the gorillas in accordance with CITES guidelines. Our work on this issue has been constant throughout this year as LAGA has been at the center of further negotiation between the governments, as well as within Cameroon itself, in-creasing cooperation between the different ministries involved and co-operation with the diplomatic mission of Cameroon in South Africa. LAGA also produced and promoted dozens of radio, TV, and written press pieces sensitizing the public. As a result, the gorillas finally arrived back in Cameroon.
In March 2007, a trader specializing in protected wildlife species was arrested in Bamenda with eight large bags of chimpanzee meat. The dealer had been observed regularly trading in protected wildlife species, including apes, between Bamenda and Kumbo in the North West Province.
An operation was carried out against an ape trafficker dealing in live chimpanzees in Nanga Eboko. This place has been an area of concern regarding the trade in great apes for some time, and officials there have been keeping pet apes in their houses as if they were above the law, while trade through the town intensified. In Defense of Animals-Africa had been leading an effort last year to apply pressure and diplomacy in an attempt to change things there. Recent LAGA missions indicated that little has changed. LAGA's operation was against one of the regular dealers who had been observed trading apes between Nanga Eboko and Yaounde.
An operation in Douala involved a hotel owner trying to sell a baby drill; he even produced a receipt for the sale. The drill is now in the Limbe Wildlife Center.
In November, an officer of the Cameroon Army was arrested trying to sell a live primate in Bamenda in the North West Province. He had arrived from the south, where he had been stationed in an area rife with corruption connected to illegal ivory trade. He was caught on record explaining how his position helped him in the past to avoid justice and fast-track illegal trade; prior to this offence, we had obtained recorded information showing how deeply he was involved in the traffic of wildlife and wildlife products while in his previous post in Djoum. The dealer has now been locked up in the National Gendarmerie Company in Bamenda.

January-June 2008
This period was marked by a special focus on trade in great apes in Nanga Eboko, Center Province. A manager in a logging company, Pangiotis Marelis, of Greek nationality, was arrested and put behind bars for illegally dealing with 2 chimps, 5 parrots and a DeBrazza's monkey. He was also caught with a hunting rifle without the corresponding permit. Investigations are now being carried out on his involvement with other chimps supplied in Douala. This comes at a time when the government and the international community are renewing pressure on logging companies to meet their legal responsibilities by controlling their facilities and their workers against illegal hunting and related trade.
A live chimpanzee was rescued from a high-ranking personality, the Senior Divisional Officer of Upper Sanaga Division/Nanga Eboko, one of the highly placed officials there who hold apes in their houses.
A retired military officer was arrested in Abong Mbang in the East Province for illegally trading in gorilla meat. The dealer was caught with a consignment of meat from an industrial refrigerator for sale including the legs and heads of gorillas. He attempted to bribe the arresting officers, and has connections to a member of parliament from the area, who also attempted to bribe the officers and the State Counsel without success. He was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment.

Wildlife Smuggling on the Internet
LAGA, in collaboration with other bodies and individuals, has discovered that in addition to the lucrative illegal smuggling of wildlife, internet wildlife scamming is also on the rise. Studying the worrying growth of internet wildlife fraud in Cameroon in the last 2 years, we noticed the link between wildlife and other forms of fraud. This was even discussed with the Prime Minister in 2007.
One of the latest of the four successful arrest operations in 2008, carried out through the ministry authorities by the forces of law and order with the assistance of LAGA, is that of a well known scammer engaged in fraud and illegal wildlife trade over the internet. He was arrested trying to sell a chimpanzee over the internet to a client in Belgium for 2000 Euros using falsified government documents and CITES permits. His connection to other forms of fraud, including illegal immigration and adoption scams, is still being investigated.
Although a majority of the internet cases we have observed is fraud and does not involve actual animals, we do not rule out the possibility that actual animals are being used to build trust between the scammer and the victim. More than anything else, the limiting factor of the illegal trade in apes is the communication between national dealers and the widespread international demand. The internet therefore is potentially disastrous in the way it can connect supply with demand.

Ofir Drori