Q & A: Fighting Corruption and Wildlife Trafficking in Central Africa


by Christina Russo, National Geographic

Date Published

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Naftali Honig is a 29-year old, Brooklyn-raised wildlife activist living in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. Since 2009 he has been the coordinator of the Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo (PALF).

According to Honig, PALF departs from the anti-poaching paradigm: a “cops and robbers” scenario, in which the poacher is the perennial enemy and the ranger is the codified good-guy chasing after him. Rather, Honig says, PALF recognizes that many low-level poachers are often replaceable, and so the organization targets higher-level wildlife traffickers through undercover operations and the justice system.

Further though, at its core, PALF is trying to address what Honig calls the systemic “monster” in Africa: corruption.

As esteemed forest elephant researcher Andrea Turkalo noted in an email, “The prosecution of the perpetrators involved in wildlife trafficking is long overdue and is probably the best deterrent in protecting species. It has been long overlooked by the NGO community. Naftali’s work…will call to account those who are driving species to extinction. Without more of this activism, wildlife is doomed.”

Honig recently received an award from African Parks (which manages the Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo) for his “courageous” work. He spoke to me while visiting New York.

What was the catalyst for your interest in protecting wildlife?

After I graduated from Cornell University, I lived in the rain forest in southwestern Republic of Congo for one year. I followed chimpanzees on a daily basis. I also bumped into elephants and gorillas and the whole experience converted me. It literally changed the way that I thought I would live my life, within one month’s time.

How did you foresee your life before that experience?

I thought I was going to go to medical school.

So how was it that you took the helm of PALF?

I learned about someone named Ofir Drori, who was running a group called LAGA in Cameroon. I learned about how he was fighting the wildlife trade by fighting corruption. And that seemed realistic for Congo. Meanwhile, his colleague Luc Mathot (Mathot is cofounder of EAGLE Network, and president of Conservation Justice in Gabon) was at the time installing a replication of the LAGA model in Brazzaville. Eventually, I came in and took it over.

Describe the LAGA model in very basic terms.

It follows wildlife crime cases from beginning to end—from the investigation to the sentencing to incarceration. While following it closely, we can make sure that people can’t bribe their way out of justice.

So when you took the helm of PALF, was LAGA already a successful model?

It was successful. Since 2003 it brought Cameroon from a baseline of zero prosecutions to having a lot of them related to wildlife crime.

But the way that the illegal trade works is that the criminals will choose the path of least resistance. You can’t have law enforcement functioning in just one place. So it was important to get the LAGA model into neighboring countries. It’s now in Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, and Benin. We’re hoping to get it going in Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya.

PALF’s dual focus—recognizing the amount of corruption and using the legal system to offset it—seems like a real departure from traditional NGO/wildlife conservation methods.

Yes. For decades no one has addressed this glaring problem of corruption—or at least not as it pertains to anti-poaching. Conservation traditionally follows a paradigm where the poacher is the enemy. For example, you have this vision of a poacher shooting his gun, running, and then a ranger is running after him, and the ranger is shooting back.

But this isn’t a fair and complete picture in Africa today. What’s more realistic is that you have complicated issues. Maybe the poacher was told by a ranger when to get into the park. Or maybe someone else supplied the poacher with a weapon. Justice has not kept pace with the current organized crime. We have to push for something to be newly addressed in that sense.

The poacher paradigm is an important catch phrase. We have this notion and a vested notion that it remains such—this kind of “cops and robbers” situation, and running after poachers in the bush. Poachers are historically replaceable. If there’s anything that poaching has taught us, it is that. If they go to jail, they’ll be replaced. Those who are less replaceable are up the chain.

Right now, however, I think the big wildlife dealers are laughing. Laughing. That’s what is so abominable.

Does Central Africa have laws already in place pertaining to wildlife crime?

Every country in central Africa is a signatory to CITES, and all those nations have produced wildlife legislation as well. Some of the legislation is quite weak—like Gabonese law, which only prosecutes up to six months maximum. Republic of Congo prosecutes up to five years maximum for being complicit in the ivory trade. But the problem isn’t only whether the law is there. It’s also a question of is the law applied fairly to everyone—for example, small poachers vs. the big traffickers.

Do you think PALF has made an impact?

We’ve followed over 300 cases, and about one-third have led to prosecutions and jail sentences. There was virtually nothing before this.

How has the ivory trade shifted since you have been at PALF?

It’s up and down.

The problem of corruption is that it’s so systemic we’re fighting a monster. This is really hard. At first, when I got to PALF, I thought people didn’t care about wildlife law. But now what I realize is that people don’t care about law. It has nothing to do with wildlife. We uncovered a document where an authority from a prison in northern Congo said a prosecutor freed 43 criminals for money. And he detailed what criminals they were. Some were in jail for ivory trading. Some were burglars. Some were murderers.

Interestingly, under that same prosecutor we had some great results. But later he said, why should he help prosecute wildlife crime if no one is giving him a kickback?

Tell me about PALF’s legal team?

The legal team is the core of our project. They’re under the French system—they’re jurists. It’s like a masters degree in the francophone system. They babysit cases. They follow the case from the moment it’s an operation to the sentencing.

So they’ll do technical work like writing up analysis for lawyers or analyzing laws and showing how someone might be prosecuted, as well as looking at evidence. And then on the activist side, they’ll babysit [monitor] the case because they know every step along there’s opportunity for corruption, which they try to block.

[If the poacher is sentenced], the legal team will visit the poacher sometimes on a daily basis or on a weekly or monthly basis. For higher value wildlife traffickers, they’ll visit them on a daily basis; every week and day they are in jail they aren’t  trafficking ivory. If we know a bribe will take place, we’ll visit the poacher in jail three times per day [to make sure it doesn’t happen].

PALF conducts undercover investigations. Do you use cameras? Audio? Surveillance? Informants?

Yes to all of the questions. We can have temporary investigators who keep their ears open and look for wildlife in the city. If park rangers pick up the case, we might get involved as early as possible, especially if the target is considered of high value.

The most interesting cases are outside the parks. This is where the criminal is who’s organizing the poachers—he’s maybe sitting in the village on the periphery of a park or a city.

 Are you or your staff ever in personal danger?

We get threats all the time. And that’s a danger we take really seriously. But I would say the threat is more on my staff than me on a daily basis. Because they’re locals, people can threaten them or their families or in ways that they can’t threaten me. One example is sorcery. Wildlife dealers will threaten the people who put them behind bars with sorcery.

They’ll take advantage of local beliefs. Others will use positions of power to exert what we call “Trafic d’influence.” That’s a huge part of corruption.

Corruption isn’t just an envelope of money. Sometimes a bribe isn’t given for months after an incident. Yes, at some point it will involve money. But it doesn’t necessarily change on the spot. So you can’t just check a bank record and see that someone has received a large sum of money. Maybe there’s a phone call to a prosecutor from a powerful person—and now that prosecutor is vulnerable, or his family is vulnerable.

You’ve said you’re trying to create a new generation of wildlife activists. Is this specific to Congo or for everywhere?

Everywhere, that’s exactly right. I have no problem hiring people from different countries, and I’ve had employees and volunteers from other countries. But our model leans toward promoting activism. And I don’t think what we’re doing will work without promoting the leadership in Congolese as well.

Is that a challenge?

Huge challenge. There isn’t a culture in activism in that sense, and as I mentioned before, the culture of corruption is so ingrained. The benefits of the rule of law haven’t yet been able to show their value.

How is the ivory trade affecting you on a personal level?

When I lived in the rain forest, there was an elephant that I would see regularly. All the elephants in my area I recognized individually. The ones that stayed I could recognize by ears, tusks, and faces.

There was one I saw all the time. He was really beautiful elephant. And he hasn’t been spotted in a long time. I don’t want to think about that because it is so horrible. Especially because I’ve been going around all parts of Congo and seeing elephant carcasses and what this trade means.

We talk about the poaching in terms of these broad numbers. But these are horrible massacres, one after another.

I remember the first time I assisted in an operation—the arrest of two ivory dealers in Point Noire, a coastal city in Congo. I remember seeing these traffickers being arrested by the police. And those tusks. And then remembering what it’s like to look at an elephant in the forest.

That memory stays with me. I try to remember that every day.

Do you think there are those at some of the very highest levels of government in African knowingly taking part in and benefiting from the illegal ivory trade and the slaughter of elephants?

In some parts of Africa this appears to be the case. In other parts, relatively high levels of government appear to be either complicit or major sources of inertia to the extent that they’re effectively aiding the trade.

What is your opinion about global conversation efforts regarding the illegal ivory trade?

I’m glad it’s evolving, but I’m so disappointed that in range states people aren’t addressing the real criminals and the real problems. It’s really easy to say that countries are victimized—and some countries exploit that status to get funding. It’s really important that countries trying to fight the trade have the support to fight it.

But it irks me to see at these international meetings, some of the people talking who may have been—or at present are involved in—the illegal wildlife trade.

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