When the Israeli journalist and traveller Ofir Drori began collecting material for an article on illegal trade in endangered species in Cameroon in 2003, he was very surprised by how easy it was to get a baby chimpanzee. And when, instead of confiscating the young, a Ministry of the Environment’s officer offered him another one, his shock soon turned into a decision to do something about it. At that time, there had been big international non-governmental organizations operating in Cameroon for decades, with expensive and high-quality equipment and teams of experts who organized trainings for government officials, yet it had no impact on punishing smugglers and poachers. In those times, nobody dealt with law enforcement. Although nature conservation laws had been in place since 1993, no one had ever been convicted of breaking them. Ofir confiscated the first chimpanzee from poachers on his own, with no backing of an organization nor with an agreement with the authorities, but he soon established an organization called LAGA - Last of the Great Apes, and created a strategy and rules, under which the EAGLE Network has been operating to these days. Seven months later, LAGA achieved its first success - the first arrested and convicted smuggler.
Other LAGA’s partner organizations later started replicating the LAGA’s model of work, and so the EAGLE Network operating today in 8 African states was created. Each team has several investigators who work incognito and penetrate smuggling networks to collect information and evidence of illegal activity. In collaboration with the police, nature conservation agents, or other agencies such as INTERPOL, they prepare the arrest itself, which must take place quickly and right in the moment when the trafficker tries to sell the goods. It is then much easier to convict the person in question. Each case is tracked by lawyers from our team, starting from assistance during the arrest alone through interrogation to conviction. But even after that, the lawyers monitor if the convicted criminal really stays in prison. The media department has the task of publishing articles about every arrest and conviction in local media to warn against this criminal activity and to deter any other potential perpetrators.
The biggest barrier to law enforcement in Africa is corruption. We encounter it at all stages - during the actual arrest and subsequent interrogation, in custody decisions, during the trial or the stay in prison. It is always possible to find a policeman or an officer who likes to improve his income. This is often prevented by the mere presence of our lawyers throughout the process, and it often happens that the pursuit of a bribe leads to further arrests. However, corruption does not happen just in form of a bribe; it is often the use of influential contacts that is much harder to control and avert. When a senior officer or a senior ministry official calls a detained officer at the police station where the arrested smuggler is interrogated, it requires not only diplomacy and personal bravery, but also a strong position. To do this, the EAGLE Network uses support and good relations with the international community, diplomatic circles, ministers themselves, and other influential people. Each project has also signed an agreement with the relevant ministry responsible for nature conservation, which gives our activity the legitimacy.
But where to get a guarantee that our team members will not be tempted and will not let themselves be bribed? The key is the careful selection of people. The most important precondition for this work is not only professional skills but primarily the activism. This approach is a must. Only a deep commitment of people believing that it makes sense to fight for the preservation of the natural heritage and perceiving corruption as a disease destroying their future can really bring about a change in the whole system. But the EAGLE Network is not just searching for activists; actually, our goal is to awaken the activism, inspire and motivate people to help them create civil society that is so much needed in Africa.
An interesting case was also Aziz Sall, a Senegalese bird trader arrested in 2015. Not only 111 parrots with false CITES export permits were found in his possession, but also 3,000 other protected birds of all kinds, of course all captured in the wild. During a further investigation, Aziz was found to have exported birds to Turkey, and the company that he supplied was then selling the birds further as captive-bred through its branch in Slovakia. This branch regularly sold exotic birds on stock exchanges in Trenčín. It is not difficult to presume that the birds from this dealer ended up at Czech breeders as well.
Today, the EAGLE Network has over 100 dedicated activists in eight countries (Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Benin, Togo, Senegal, and Ivory Coast), and the results of their work are concrete and visible. Thanks to our activists, more than 2,000 smugglers and traffickers have ended up behind bars since the first project in Cameroon. The 2017 brought the best results so far - 406 arrested smugglers and other criminals, of which more than a half were ivory smugglers who had managed to seize 3.5 tonnes.
The latest great success was the arrest of a Vietnamese smuggler, Tran Van Tu, and his six accomplices in Ivory Coast in January 2018. Almost half a tonne of ivory seized in the operation was ready to be transported to Southeast Asia. This gang used a sophisticated smuggling method where ivory was stored and waxed in cut logs, then glued into prisms mixed with similar logs. In Kenya and Mozambique, more than two tonnes of ivory smuggled using the same method have been seized in the past years.
The EAGLE Network has dealt with several such major cases, such as the crimination of a gang of chimpanzees' and other animals' smugglers around Ansouman Doumbouy, the former CITES chief in Guinea; in February 2017 in Uganda we arrested an ivory smuggler gang operating in West and Central Africa and seized 1.3 tonnes of elephant tusks; another case was the arrest of two Chinese smugglers and the seizure of Central Africa’s largest consignments of pangolin scales in Cameroon in January 2017, or the arrest of a gang of eight smugglers with three tonnes of pangolin scales in Ivory Coast in June 2017.
Article by Jana Hajduchová (Support Officer, EAGLE Network) - www.eagle-enforcement.org