This Is How You Do It: 4 Elephant Poachers Convicted in Congo

©. Ivory, weapons, and equipment seized from the poaching gang. (Photo: Forrest Hogg/WCS)

An increase in maximum sentences for wildlife crimes are being delivered by the Republic of Congo – here's how one gang's arrest and conviction went down.

During the past 10 years, central Africa’s forest elephants have fallen victim to a devastating wave of ivory poaching, unlike any seen in the region before. Gangs of poachers have become more organized and more aggressive. It's gotten to the point that once rarely occurring, this year alone has seen six exchanges of gunfire between heavily armed poachers and park rangers at Congo's Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park.

But the courts are not taking this lightly, as evidenced by an increase in maximum sentences being issued. What a relief that must be for the park rangers who are risking their lives to protect these noble creatures.

Recent news from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) describes an arrest and ensuing conviction in which a gang of four poachers were sentenced to five years in prison and fined 5,000,000 XAF each ($10,000) for killing four elephants at the periphery of Nouabalé-Ndoki. The leader of the murderous crew is Leonard Beckou, who was arrested for poaching in 2015 and 2016. The latest slaughters were plotted close to local villages, which is terrifying for local communities, WCS notes, and highlights "the negative impact of elephant poaching and the ivory trade not only on elephants, but also on people."

So how do you catch elephant poachers? WCS gives us a narrative of the events:

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 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.’

While it hardly seems severe enough a sentence to me, it's tremendous progress. And in an unprecedented switch up, the judge also decided that the convicts would serve their time south, in Brazzaville, "far out of sight from the northern poaching networks." And it wasn't just this gang of poachers that felt the strong arm of the law that day – all of the other wildlife crime cases brought before the district court that day were issued the maximum penalty for wildlife crime, notes WCS. According to a study by the conservation society, there has been a notable increase in maximum sentences for wildlife crimes, "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."

As poachers become more brazen, the rangers need to be ensured of the resources and training to fight the criminals and work with the local communities – which WCS is helping to accomplish vis-à-vis a public private partnership between the Congolese Government and WCS Congo Program.

Sing praise for the people working so hard to protect the elephants.