25.05.2020. Behind his blue mask, the eco-guard is smiling: lying in the back of his pick-up under the scorching sun, 40 dwarf crocodiles are about to be set free. Before being released back in the river Sangha, they need rehydrating with a water sprinkle. With their muzzle tied up, they are lucky to be still alive. ‘That could show that the young crocodiles, a partially protected species in Congo, were not just destined for slaughter on the local market of Ouesso but rather, smuggling,’ argues José Blanchard Bokandza.
Since August 2018, he coordinates the Surveillance and Anti-Poaching Unit (USLAB) comprising 45 law-enforcing eco-guards that patrol the forest managed by INTERHOLCO through its subsidiary IFO, in the Northern part of the Republic of Congo. How has COVID-19 changed the way the forest is being safeguarded? ‘In times of COVID-19, mask wearing is compulsory everywhere on the industrial site, including in the forest during harvest. Importantly, masks keep humans and animals protected from the risk of infection.’
Although the origins of COVID-19 are currently unproven, there are strong indications of a wild animal source and a direct link to wildlife trade. Specifically, a significant proportion of early cases in China involved people who had worked at, or visited, a market in Wuhan where wild animals were on sale. Initial research results pointed to a possible zoonotic transmission, i.e. the disease jumping from the host animal to a new species.
Legal or illegal, trading in wild animals can be quite lucrative. Until recently, crocodile penis was still consumed in exotic Malaysian restaurants for USD 58 a piece, as The National Geographic reported. Singapore’s tanneries are still hungry for crocodiles, caimans and alligators from Africa or Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Colombia. Reptile skin is a coveted item on the Asian market, where, as exposed by animal rights NGO PETA Asia, luxury brands produce wallets, belts, bags, clothing, shoes...
Risks of transmission of animal-borne diseases to humans are not insignificant where farmed animals are legally imported. Let alone where animals are being smuggled on the black market, with poor transport conditions and no quarantine. According to wildlife trade NGO TRAFFIC, conditions are key, i.e. how animals are kept packed together.
In the forests of Northern Congo, wild animals are still an important source of protein for indigenous people who have no access to large dietary options. Until government authorities adopt risk-specific measures, IFO’s social team visits forest villages, leading awareness-raising campaigns in the local languages. ‘The village people are afraid,’ says Timothée Epoutangongo, of Baaka origin himself by birth and working in the IFO Social Team. ‘We advise them not to eat raw meat and to avoid cooking sick animals. We ask them to prefer the meat of local, domestic animals.’ Of course, hunting is a right. But how about gorilla, forest elephant, small crocodile and any other species which are integrally protected? ‘People in the villages are very well aware of which animals they may hunt for their livelihood,’ clarifies Mr. Bokandza. ‘Besides, they hunt traditionally. Smugglers and poachers, on the other hand, have war weapons coming from foreign, even far-off, countries.’
Fear of contagion has the power to curb animal traffic, especially now that global demand has saturated the ability of logistics and trade to cope with COVID-19.
Let’s join forces to update and adapt anti-poaching strategies, let’s act together to put an end to illegal wildlife trade – now!
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Bank CIC (Schweiz) AG, 4001 Basel
Account holder: INTERHOLCO AG
To be continued...
INTERHOLCO offers Sustainable Hardwood 'Made in Africa' as a responsible solution to promote better living conditions (construction with wood), reduce climate change, and increase social justice. As FSC-certified producer specialized in producing and trading logs, sawn timber, glued laminated scantlings and other products, INTERHOLCO manages the entire chain, from forest to customers since 1962. Harvesting wood selectively, INTERHOLCO protects 1.1 million hectares of natural forest from permanent conversion to agricultural land, giving 16’000 local inhabitants access to quality basic services and keeping the habitat of thousands of gorillas and elephants.
Communications contact INTERHOLCO
Tullia Baldassarri Höger von Högersthal
INTERHOLCO AG, Schutzengelstr. 36, 6340 Baar, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 (0)41 767 03 82