On 7 April, a council of ministers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda agreed to ratify a treaty to protect Africa’s most biodiverse wildlife habitat and the endangered mountain gorilla. At the inaugural meeting, a deadline was set for September 2018 to finalise the national processes needed to ratify the treaty – formally titled the Treaty on the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration on Wildlife Conservation and Tourism Development.
The 13 800 km2 Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL) straddles eastern DRC, north-western Rwanda and south-western Uganda. Although many of these areas are protected, poaching and the illicit trade in wildlife pose a serious and ongoing threat.
The area is home to three UNESCO world heritage sites; a UNESCO ‘man and biosphere reserve’; and a Ramsar Site. It is also the most species-rich landscape in the Albertine Rift – home to more vertebrate species and more endemic and endangered species than any other region in Africa.
Vincent Munyeshyaka, Rwanda’s Minister of Trade and Industry, was elected as the president of the first Council of Ministers of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC). ‘The three states will have the responsibility of preventing illegal wildlife trade and poaching in protected areas, as well as increase the punishment for lawbreakers,’ he said in a statement following the occasion.
Established through a treaty signed by Uganda, DRC and Rwanda in September 2015, the GVTC dates back to 1991 when rangers first began to collaborate to protect mountain gorillas in the three partner states. It has since evolved to become a broader mechanism for strategic and collaborative management between the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the Rwandan Development Board and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority.
So far, the GVTC’s collective law enforcement efforts have yielded positive results in combating poaching and wildlife crime. Encouragingly, the number of mountain gorillas and elephants has grown in the past decade. In addition to anti-poaching activities, the GVTC also promotes community participation through co-ordinated conservation and protection campaigns.
A few weeks prior to the first council of ministers, Executive Secretary Dr Georges Tshibasu Muamba told ENACT Observer that the GVTC has managed to reduce ivory poaching by 50% in the past five years. According to the GVL annual report for 2016, the number of elephant carcasses recorded in 2016 was equal to half the annual average for the preceding five years. The report also mentions a high rate of prosecution and seizures, citing a case study on Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, where 282 suspects involved in poaching were prosecuted with a conviction rate of 82%.
These trends show how combined, transnational efforts can effectively combat poaching. Additionally, the GVTC has also helped to ease tensions between the countries by providing a platform where their military forces can collaborate in a transparent way.
But it’s not all easy sailing. According to Muamba, the most significant stumbling block is the presence of various armed groups. This is particularly true for the eastern DRC, which is marked by an absence of the rule of law, and continual conflict between the government and various militias.
Rangers at the Virunga National Park – which is part of the GVL and located in the DRC – continue to risk life and limb to curb poaching. The park is home to about a quarter of the world's remaining 880 mountain gorillas. Armed groups have reportedly killed more than 130 rangers in the park since 1996. One of the latest cases occurred in April this year, when the park announced that five rangers had been killed in an ambush by suspected militias who often poach animals in the park. These groups kill animals such as elephants, hippos and buffaloes both for meat and ivory. Wildlife products are then trafficked from the DRC through Uganda or Rwanda.
According to the GVL 2016 report, ivory confiscated in Kampala in 2016 dropped to 389 kilograms from 2 813 kilograms in 2015. These figures appear to correlate with findings from CITES’ Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants Programme, which reported that elephant numbers in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda are stable or rising. Uganda is the region’s main transit route for the illicit trade in fauna and flora. Other routes that feed into it are mainly from South Sudan and Burundi.
Another challenge can be seen in extraction-related activities in the region. Over 80% of the GVL is covered by oil concessions; and opening up these pristine areas might increase the region’s vulnerability to poachers and other criminal actors. The associated population increase might also increase the demand for illegal wildlife products and other illicit goods.
The GVTC leadership is optimistic, however, that the ratification of the treaty will be effective in bolstering ongoing collaboration with neighbouring communities through tourism development. Indeed the GVTC is an example of how much can be achieved when there is effective collaboration not only between states, but also between the state, non-state actors and communities.
Muamba acknowledges that ‘poachers don’t have borders’. He says the GVTC’s ‘zero poaching strategy’ aims to counter this by building capacities and encouraging cross-border dialogue between communities and security forces. This, he says, will go a long way to consolidate development and tackle insecurity.
The case of Akagera National Park in Rwanda, for instance, has shown how protecting and securing a national park can result in an economic boost and the safeguarding of biodiversity. So, too, could increased tourism in the GVL improve local livelihoods, and allow communities to play an active and powerful role in preventing poaching and illicit wildlife trade in the GVL.
The treaty also aims to harmonise the legal and policy frameworks on wildlife-related crimes. Its ratification will oblige states to review the penalties stipulated for wildlife crimes. Ratifying the treaty will also help to curb corruption and boost cooperation between partner states. Additionally, it can help to address legislative loopholes and improve enforcement and compliance.
Having already been working closely with partner states through relevant ministries or agencies, the GVTC must do everything in its power to ensure the September ratification deadline is met. Of even greater importance, though, will be the development of an operational strategy to ensure that related legislation is effectively implemented in the future.
Deo Gumba, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – East and Horn of Africa, ISS