BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo, July 25, 2013 (ENS) – Ghislain Ngondjo, alias “Pépito,” notorious for elephant poaching and ivory trafficking in the Republic of Congo, was sentenced on July 15 to five years in jail by the Congolese Supreme Court.
“Within the walls of a dilapidated courthouse in a remote, small city in the Republic of Congo, the judges of Ewo on Monday boldly sentenced the notorious ivory trafficker Ghislain Ngondjo to the maximum prison term of five years,” writes Sarah Sparling, a native Texan who works with a microfinance organization in Congo.
“Ngondjo, who is known in ivory trafficking circles simply as ‘Pepito,’ has plagued Odzala-Kokoua National Park and its surrounding area for over a decade with his crippling presence,” writes Sparling.
“Pepito took on a Godfather role in the Odzala region of the Congo by recruiting new poachers and supplying them with illegal assault rifles, assisting with the murder of countless elephants, and selling the ivory,” she writes. “Pepito also recently made serious death threats against African Parks Network Ecoguards and international staff.”
Conservation groups are calling the five-year sentence an extraordinary victory in the fight to save Africa’s forest elephants. During the last decade, 76 percent of Africa’s forest elephants were killed by poachers, with an estimated 35,000 slaughtered last year alone.
The conviction was the result of years of investigation by the Congolese government assisted by participants in PALF, the Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo, a partnership of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the Aspinall Foundation, based in Kent, England, committed to ending wildlife trafficking in Congo. Sparling also cooperates with PALF.
The African Parks Network, who help manage Odzala National Park where Ngondjo operated, also assisted in the investigation. Odzala is one of the most important strongholds for forest elephant and western gorilla conservation remaining in Central Africa.
The Wildlife Conservation Society congratulates the Republic of the Congo’s Minister of Justice and the Congolese Supreme Court for the successful prosecution and sentencing of Ngondjo.
Ngondjo was convicted for the killing of scores of elephants and illegally selling their ivory, while recruiting new poachers and supplying them with illegal assault rifles.
An arrest warrant for Ngondjo was issued by the regional prosecutor in Ewo on April 23 and the park’s anti-poaching team arrested him and an accomplice a few days later, with the help of the local Gendarme. After being taken to the Gendarme building, Ngondjo’s collaborators started rioting outside the building and park staff were forced to move him at night to Ewo.
Information gathered by the park’s intelligence officer indicated that several park eco-guards had been collaborating with Ngondjo by providing him with information on park patrol routes and planned ambushes.
The emotionally charged trial consisted of hours of testimony against Ngondjo by fellow poachers, some of whom testified that he persuaded them to begin poaching and provided them with illegal weapons.
PALF and African Parks Network say that he had been active in Odzala National Park and the surrounding Cuvette-Ouest region for more than a decade.
The sentencing included two other ivory criminals, one of whom received a similar five-year sentence and the other sentenced to two years.
On July 16 Ngondjo was transferred almost 600 kilometers to the capital of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville, where he will serve his prison sentence, because there is no operational prison in Ewo and other prisons in the area are less secure.
Three-quarters of Africa’s forest elephants have been slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade over the past 12 years, according to Wildlife Conservation Society scientists, leading President Barack Obama to issue an Executive Order July 1 forming a anti-poaching task force and prioritizing the protection of elephants and conviction of commercial poachers and traffickers.
The United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice passed a resolution in April encouraging UN member states “to make illicit trafficking in wild fauna and flora a serious crime” and to ensure that organized criminal groups are prosecuted.
James Deutsch, director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Africa Program, said, “Congo is ground zero for the fight to save Africa’s forest elephants from extinction, and the arrest and successful prosecution of Pepito shows that we can win this war when governments and the NGO community work together in partnership.
“The Republic of the Congo’s Minister of Justice and Congolese Supreme Court and have sent a clear message that the theft and pillaging of Congo’s wildlife heritage by criminal poachers and traffickers will not be tolerated,” said Deutsch.
The European Union, African Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society, and PALF followed the judicial proceedings and sent a team to ensure Congolese law was applied fairly and justly.
Naftali Honig, coordinator of PALF, said Pepito’s imprisonment was an “almost unprecedented success” in Congo and could be attributed to the diligence of the Court in Ewo.
“For more than a decade, Odzala-Kokoua National Park and the Cuvette-Ouest region of Congo were plagued with the crippling presence of Pépito. His sense of impunity expired this week when he was delivered to Brazzaville prison to serve his five-year prison sentence,” said Honig.
Leon Lamprecht, African Parks’ Manager for Odzala-Kokoua described Pépito’s jailing as “a victory for justice” in Congo, saying, “Pépito allegedly had influential connections that previously secured him immunity against prosecution and we are very relieved to have him behind bars for five years.”
While the sentencing was a major victory for the Congo justice system, conservationists warn that this battle is not over.
PALF now is working with the Congolese government to facilitate the arrest of another of the country’s most notorious ivory traffickers, one with influential governmental connections.
Head of an international ivory trafficking ring, he avoided being arrested by the Gendarmerie on March 21, after his son, who is a member of the Congolese Armed Forces, forcefully intervened, Sparling reports. Nevertheless, that day the Gendarmerie seized a total of over 41 kilograms of illegal ivory from the homes of this trafficker and one of his accomplices – raw ivory, carved statutes, jewelry, and an ivory cross.
Sparling writes, “The recent events in the Republic of Congo proffer a microcosmic lens to the current global themes related to wildlife trade: complex, sophisticated international criminal networks profiting from the insatiable thirst for ivory in Asia, the slaughtering of elephants at unprecedented levels, racial tensions relating to the control of the elephants and their ivory, and political corruption.”