By Rori Kameka, University of Maryland student and summer intern at Tchimpounga
On three of the seven nights I have camped out with JGI’s Mandrill Release Research Team in Conkouati National Park, I have heard the footsteps of men walking just outside my tent. After hearing these noises for two nights, I was not entirely sure what to make of them. Miles Woodruff, the Mandrill Project Research Manager, had warned me that poachers occasionally pass through camp late at night. However, hearing those footsteps wasn’t enough confirmation for me … they could have been the footsteps of fishermen on the night shift for all I knew.
Fortunately on the fourth night I camped in the park, eco-guards set up camp next to us. Eco-guards are responsible for protecting wildlife and enforcing anti-poaching laws in the park. Around 3 a.m. that morning, there was a lot of movement and talking outside my tent..The next morning, I awoke to see the tragic display of what had unfolded just a few hours earlier. From what I gathered, the eco-guards stopped a poacher who had been carrying the carcasses of various animals. If sold in the markets as bushmeat, they could be worth an estimated $300.
This encounter would outrage many people who care about the forest and the animals who live there, and for good reason. But let’s take a second to imagine what it’s like living in the Republic of the Congo, a country where the unemployment rate is 26.6 percent.. Imagining what it is like to have no job but to have a family to feed, it becomes easy to see why poaching is so prevalent in this area. Poaching is often economically advantageous for the poacher, and allows them to provide for their family. Sad, but true.
You’re probably wondering what became of this poacher. After he was caught by the eco-guards, his “catch” was confiscated and he was released shortly thereafter. I’m not entirely sure if this method of punishment is enough of a disincentive to combat poaching, but I suppose it’s more effective than the absence of any consequences at all.
I believe the solution to the problem of poachers is education. If communities in which people are engaged in illegal hunting are made aware of alternative livelihoods, there would likely be a decrease in poaching. Luckily JGI has already identified solutions and established effective programs across the Congo basin all of which are geared toward teaching the importance of wildlife and conservation, in addition to improving communities’ quality of life.