Militants and Profiteers Wipe Out Wildlife in the DRC

Illegal exploitation of the mineral and forest resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] is taking place at an alarming rate," according to a recent Panel of Experts Report issued at the request of the United Nations Security Council. Natural resource raiding is exacerbated by the active external involvement of partisan nations in the region, notably Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola.

Some key players in the rape of Africa's natural riches have historically exploited civil turmoil for personal gain and are individually named in the report. One notorious culprit, Mrs. Aziza Kulsum Gulamali, was also implicated in Burundi's civil war, where "she was involved in arms trafficking for the benefit of the Burundian Hutus and was equally involved in gold and ivory trafficking."

Wildlife is impacted detrimentally by the warring in DRC. The Report notes, for instance, that between 1995 and 1999 "in the area controlled by the Ugandan troops and Sudanese rebels, nearly 4,000 out of 12,000 elephants were killed in the Garamba Park" in north-eastern DRC.  Further, "In the Kahuzi-Biega Park, a zone controlled by Rwandans and [the Rally for Congolese Democracy based in Goma] and rich in coltan, only 2 out of 350 elephant families remained in 2000." Rwandan soldiers are implicated in the trading of elephant and buffalo meat.

Other endangered species, including highly endangered gorillas, are under fierce attack in the Congo. Okapis, the short-necked relative of the giraffe whose legs bear markings like a zebra, are rapidly dwindling there. Even the Okapi Reserve can no longer provide safe haven for the roughly 5,000 (of the estimated 30,000) okapis surviving in the wild.

The primary focus of the report involves looting of mineral resources such as coltan (used in high-tech electronic products and everyday modern items such as cell phones), gold and diamonds. A number of western, developed nations have companies importing coltan including Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  In some instances, the Panel implicated embassy staff in facilitating "the purchase of illegal minerals." For instance: "The United States honorary consul in Bukavu, as he presented himself, Ramnik O. Kotecha, in addition to promoting deals between American companies and coltan dealers in the region, is himself Chairman of the Kotecha group of companies based in Bukavu and deals in coltan."

Unlawful foreign companies further exacerbate the unsustainable timber harvests that threaten the DRC's remaining forestlands. The Report notes that a Ugandan-Thai forest company, DARA-Forest, "consistently exported its timber" without proper certification. The United States is among the list of industrialized countries with companies that import this uncertified timber.

This Report is not the only indication that the volatile state of government rule in the DRC precludes any real oversight over wildlife protection and enables corruption by government bureaucrats, complicit foreign corporations and exploitative corporations to flourish. A recent CITES report notes that rebels in the DRC had been falsifying CITES documents to export chimpanzees to a neighboring country, where "it is suspected the animals were destined for the bushmeat trade." Further, genuine export permits were illegally altered to facilitate large-scale illicit international trade. "In one instance alone," CITES alleges, "permits authorizing the export of only two birds were used to export 1,000 birds to two different countries."

Caption: Even in the DRC's Okapi Wildlife Reserve, poachers don't spare the elusive okapi. (Wildlife Conservation Society/Bronx Zoo)

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