Do I really need to conserve wildlife when I don’t directly benefit from it? Can’t I just do it my way? What if I got ivory and sold it, oh how much money I would make in an instant. If I sold trips of timber and sacks of charcoal I would get a lot of money, there’s a free source after-all. Do I really have to continue spending my hard-earned money on meat when I can clearly get free bush meat from the park – am I not an experienced hunter anyway?
These and many more questions time and again linger in the minds of many people. Potential wildlife criminals I would call them; but does this make them wildlife criminals, the answer is in their actions at the end of the day.
A lot has been and continues to be destroyed in the Greater Virunga Landscape; trees are cut down for timber and charcoal, animals are killed for bush meat and other items e.g ivory, teeth, skin, etc, forest land is encroached on for farming, baby animals are kidnapped for sale and much more.
Did you know that in Uganda alone about 200,000 hectares of natural forest cover are lost to encroachment and charcoal making annually? (Eco-Guardian, July 2017)
To conserve biodiversity is to invest in the future and maintain a stable ecosystem. Unfortunately, not many people see it this way preferring to focus on short-term gains. Some community members, protected area staff and authorities, politicians, academicians, security personnel and tourists, yes, some of them too have been involved in wildlife crime. There’s need for greater vigilance and transboundary collaboration in the fight against transboundary wildlife crime. Everybody needs to play their role in this fight against wildlife crime for wealth is not the instant money gotten from the trade, but from conserving it. Conservation activists need to create massive awareness on the realities and dangers of wildlife crime and clearly educate the people on their roles and responsibilities in this fight.
In line with the same, GVTC, supported by IGCP, on 14th September conducted a successful campaign against transboundary wildlife crime in Rubavu district, Rwanda. The one-day meeting aimed at facilitating dialogue and debate between park wardens, law enforcement committee members, students, lecturers and tour operators on the importance of wildlife conservation in the region: raising awareness on the transboundary and regional wildlife crimes related to poaching, illegal collection of firewood and illegal trade of charcoal and pointing out the importance of conservation for tourism development.
Presentations made by GVTC, IGCP and enforcement officers from the three parks – Virunga, Volcanoes and Mgahinga – highlighted the status of wildlife crime in the region and the existing efforts to fight it, for instance; treaty signing between the three countries (Uganda, Rwanda, DRC), collaboration of conservation stakeholders, willingness to share important transboundary wildlife information and ratification to existing international laws/conventions on wildlife crimes e.g CITES by the respective countries.
Poverty, poor governance, and lack of environmental education on the other hand emerged as the main causes of poaching and wildlife crime from the discussions.
Several strategies of addressing this challenge were also suggested including; advocate to governments to jointly fight armed groups from the forests and wildlife crime, conduct massive awareness campaigns on existing laws and repercussions of wildlife crime among the community, reinforce the capacity of transboundary security services, educate and encourage communities to plant trees for timber, firewood, and charcoal, revise the existing strategy of fighting wildlife crime. Commenting on the suggested strategies Susan Natukunda a lecturer at Bishop Balaam University – Kabale, faculty of environment and disaster management noted that the religious leaders need to be brought on board too. “There is still a missing link in all this and that is the involvement of religious leaders; one, they command respect in the community, two, their work addresses moral decay in the society and wildlife crime is one of them. They have the capacity to influence change in attitude and actions of the wildlife abusers. We need them in this fight” Susan remarked.
Speaking at the meeting, the GVTC Executive Secretary Dr. Georges Muamba thanked all conservation stakeholders especially the governments of the three countries for their collaboration and political will to conserve wildlife expressed in the signing of the treaty in 2015. He challenged the students to use the information acquired from the meeting and be ambassadors of the fight against transboundary wildlife crime. He appealed to students to start with sharing about wildlife crime on their social media pages. In response to Dr. Georges’ appeal, Rogers Gumusiriza, a student of environment and disaster management at Bishop Balaam University said “We are grateful that finally students were invited to participate in such an informative meeting. Participating in such meetings helps us understand conservation realities even better and points us towards what we need to do as students. As a finalist I feel challenged to act and I pledge to be an effective wildlife crime preventer”.
IGCP support was made possible by USAID through the Central Africa Forest Ecosystem Conservation (CAFEC) program.