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For years, Ansoumane Doumbouya was Guinea’s top official for wildlife protection. He was also the country’s representative to meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Now he is in jail in Conakry, the capital, charged with conducting illegal international trade in the very creatures he was responsible for protecting, including chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos.
His arrest is particularly important, activists say, because he was a governmental official and because corruption in governments on both the exporting and importing end of illegal wildlife trade is very difficult to fight. The arrest also highlights the actions of a rare kind of nongovernmental wildlife organization that is devoted not to education, the creation of sanctuaries or policy changes — but to enforcement.
Ofir Drori, an Israeli who has worked in Africa for many years, was one of the people involved in the undercover effort to gather evidence against Mr. Doumbouya. He founded an organization called the Eagle Network, which stands for Eco Activists for Governance and Law Enforcement. It is an alliance of organizations in different countries, including one in Guinea called Guinée Application de la Loi Faunique, or GALF. It is headed by a French conservationist, Charlotte Houpline, and together they pursued Mr. Doumbouya, with Mr. Drori posing as a buyer. He said in an interview that his group does “everything but the handcuffs.” Interpol and Guinean authorities acted to arrest Mr. Doumbouya.
Douglas Cress, the coordinator of the Great Apes Survival Partnership (Grasp), an alliance of governments, conservation groups, private companies and United Nations agencies, said Mr. Drori and Ms. Houpline had built the case against Mr. Doumbouya.
“They’re the ones that did the front-line work,” Mr. Cress said.
Mr. Drori said the allegations against Mr. Doumbouya “were so much in the open that he was very, very careful.” But, Mr. Drori said, Mr. Doumbouya was eventually caught with export permits, which he should not have possessed because by that time he had left his official positions. Mr. Drori said that he, Ms. Houpline and others first investigated another suspected dealer whom they used to get more information on Mr. Doumbouya. That suspect, Thierno Barry, was also arrested.
Mr. Drori says Eagle is the world’s first nongovernmental enforcement organization and does everything it can to fight corruption. The organization conducts undercover work and research to develop evidence to support prosecution, and acts as a watchdog as cases move through the courts. But Eagle cannot actually make arrests; it cooperates with national and international police.
In the case of Mr. Doumbouya, both Interpol and Guinean law enforcement authorities were involved.
Mr. Drori came to the unusual role of nonprofit law enforcement after working as a journalist in Africa writing about wildlife issues. He was frustrated and angry by the level of corruption, he said, and the way that enforcement was hampered by bribery at every step. “A lot of it is a sham,” he added. Nongovernmental organizations were concentrating on policy issues, he said. He wanted to be more active. Now, “we have more than 1,000 successful arrests” in several countries, he said.
Mr. Drori signs his email with a quotation often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “A law without enforcement is really just good advice.”
Wildlife trafficking in Guinea has been rampant, according to several agencies. A report from Grasp in 2013 on the illegal trade in apes cited 643 documented cases of chimpanzees illegally smuggled out of Africa, each a capture from the wild, between 2005 and 2011, mostly going to zoos in China.
The report said this was only a fraction of the chimpanzees captured in Guinea by poachers, since many die while being captured or transported, or are never documented. The report claimed the real number of chimps and other apes caught illegally in the wild was more than 20 times higher, close to 3,000 per year. Now, Mr. Cress says, about two great apes are seized from smugglers each week by enforcement officials. In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species sanctioned Guinea, prohibiting any trade in thousands of species, including parrots.
Under the Guinean criminal system, similar to the French system, Mr. Doumbouya is being held while his case is further investigated, which could take months.
His lawyer, Mory Doumbouya, said he was prohibited from commenting on a case that was under investigation.
Mr. Cress said that if Ansoumane Doumbouya is convicted of wildlife trafficking, he could face several years in prison.