Photo: Flickr/Karen Corby
Former poachers in the Republic of Congo’s largest protected area have pulled a 180, becoming protectors of the park.
Launched earlier this year, one of the world’s first “Poacher to Protector” programs has turned 28 former poachers into park rangers at Odzala National Park, a protected area that takes up more than 8,400 square miles of central Congo.
As part of the program, candidates had to confess to their crimes and turn in their illegal weapons. According to Leon Lamprecht, manager of the park, details of their crimes were instrumental in bringing down Ngondjo Thislain, a poaching kingpin who was recently sentenced to five years in jail based on evidence gathered through the program.
“They’ve played a vital role in performing research and monitoring functions on paramilitary groups,” Lamprecht said at an event announcing the initiative, held in Washington, D.C.
Nicole Mollo, African Parks’ director of philanthropy in the US, said that the information gathering aspect of the program has been vital to making a series of high-level arrests.
“What’s critical about this is the information that lies with these individuals, the intelligence gathering we can get. Without it, we’d be paralyzed on the ground,” she said.
The program has also allowed park rangers to infiltrate the paramilitary groups that often facilitate poaching.
“We’re actively recruiting within the communities which allows us to engage with paramilitary forces in a way we haven’t been able to prior to this initiative,” she said. “This is an alternative form of employment. It’s a misnomer that these people want to poach. They want a stable income and stable livelihoods. They’re good people who want to make a living.”
In its first push, 56 former poachers applied to become park rangers, but the park only had the ability to train 28 of them. Thursday, the parks, along with the Richardson Center—a nonprofit group set up by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson—announced plans to make the program permanent. They’ll be building a training facility sometime within the next six months and plan to sign up more poachers in early 2014.
“We’ve already had some poachers sign up. There’s already results,” Richardson said. “This program is sending a strong signal to the supply chain that we’re trying to end illegal trade.”
Eric Dinerstein, of the World Wildlife Fund, said that poachers often “understand the behavior of animals better than we do.”
“They know where they go to drink, their feeding areas,” he said.
Odzala National Park is considered one of the last remaining strongholds for African elephants—more than 9,500 elephants still live there, but it’s also a poaching hotspot. According to Lamprecht, many of the elephants living there have taken refuge from other areas.
“While [the number of elephants] is higher than expected, a healthy number, it’s not due to law enforcement, but compression,” Lamprecht said. “That’s when they flee neighboring areas to the park due to poaching.”