A TYPICAL AFRICAN CITES MAZE (I DID NOT SAY MESS)
I returned from a trip to Northern Congo some three weeks ago. I was in part of the DRC held by the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. Roughly two thirds of this, the second biggest of the country on the continent, are held by various rebel groups. Some like the MLC have set up a civilian administrative structure, they have introduced new laws, taxes etc. They consider themselves as representative as the Kabila regime which arrived in the capital with a bunch of armed children and a few Rwandan officers.
However there seems to be some kind of rule, in geopolitical terms, that the party who holds the capital somehow is the legitimate government. It seems as far as CITES is concerned, the party which holds the stationary and the stamps to be stuck on the licenses. The problem, with this policy of course is the fact that in Central Africa and Sudan huge chunks of land, including important wildlife habitats are no longer under central government control.
Now back to my problem. One of the objectives of my trip was to collect chimp fecal samples for medical research purposes. While doing so local hunters showed me a very remote forest in which they regularly find ground nests which they presumed to be those of chimps. Having produced a coffee table type of book on the three gorilla subspecies, I knew that gorillas generally nest on the ground and chimps nest in the trees. (the area in question is mixed savannah and forest habitat and has a good population of hyena, lions and leopards - a good incentive to sleep in trees). We found several such ground nests, two relatively fresh. In an older one we also found a fecal sample with hair stuck to it, in the fresh ones we did not find feces but several hairs stuck to leaves. I collected this hair and fecal sample in see through plastic tubes.
The nights are relatively long in a forest camp, with no generator and lights. While lying in my tent I reflected on the fact that we were not in gorilla habitat and why would only some troops of chimps have developed specific nesting patterns. What about the baboons which also used these forests, could they have evolved more than in other parts of the continent? I knew that fecal samples did not require any kind of CITES permits when taken across international borders. I wondered whether shed hair or hair stuck in fecal samples would be considered a waste product as well. What about if the chimps here hunted the black and white Colobous, which I believe is a CITES listed animal, and the fecal samples contained tissue of these primates? So, assuming a CITES permit for these hair samples was needed, how would one get one. By taking the next flight to Kinshasa and going to the ministry concerned? Not an option. There is a war front separating these two parts of the DRC. (While we were there the rebels shot down an Antonov near Mbandaka and the US intelligence services reported that the Kabila government had acquired SAM missiles from Iran). The safest way to get hair samples to the capital, for a CITES permit and export inspection would be to swim down the Congo River. The problem is I am not a good long distance swimmer. Taking them into any other direction, of course meant crossing an international border which would of course mean infringing on CITES rules and regulations. I wondered how the research and veterinary community was going to deal with this issue at present and in future. A lot of bonobo habitat is now held by the same rebel group. All the remaining mountain and eastern lowland gorillas are in rebel held territory and so are the Okapis and the Northern White Rhinos. What about the recent outbreak of Ebola in eastern Congo, were any primate samples taken via Uganda to South Africa for testing. On what CITES permit? I had just gotten myself a new passport, knowing that entering rebel held parts with my Congo visas and Kinshasa entry and export permits would not be a good idea. I was also aware that with my stamps from the rebel held parts I would never get another a visa to go to Kinshasa. except again with a new passport. And then what would I tell the ministry officials? That I had collected hair samples in ground nests in the middle of rebel territory. Even if I was not arrested as a spy, would they be issuing me with an export permit when I had just imported the hair illegally from a third country.
What about the fact that this trip took me through two more countries, both signatories to CITES, would that mean getting CITES import and EXPORT permits for each? In one case in a capital some 800 kilometers away from my transit point?
I must admit, I still got a good nights sleep and then did the only thing which made any sense, I took the samples with me to Kenya and upon arrival at my home, stuck them in an envelope and sent them by DHL to a large US State University where a lab had agreed to do some DNA testing to find out what species this hair came from (I kept the fecal samples since it needed to be kept refrigerated for as long as possible and would arrive in better condition when hand carried).
When the parcel reached Nairobi I got a call from DHL asking me what hair this was. I explained that I did not know. That it was most likely from chimps but might just be from gorillas or possibly another primate. They pointed out that most likely permits would be needed.
Now I have to admit that I kind of expected such a scenario, so I did ask the administrative official of the MLC to provide me with an export permit for these samples which he did. I also had a blanco CITES import permit from a lab at NIH I had worked with on previous occasions and I was aware that my listed recipient was working closely with NIH and that if necessary the material could be covered by this permit. I faxed both permits to the DHL office in Nairobi. With that DHL was satisfied and the shipment left.
Some four days later I started following up on progress. It had reached JFK and was in customs. Three days later it was still in customs and the Tracking number had been taken off the DHL computer system. I suspected that things had gone wrong. (I had by this time also been in touch with a scientist at the Natural History Museum in New York who had warned me that hair stored in a tube could easily develop fungi and extracting DNA might then become impossible. That is when I recalled that the tubes showed considerable condensation inside).
Then I heard from the recipient at the University. They had been contacted by a Fish and Wildlife Inspector from JFK and been told that they would be held responsible for the import of an illegal wildlife shipment. They were rather concerned by this development. I called my contact at the Natural History Museum and asked if he could try to get in touch with the official and try to explain that we were dealing with a perishable commodity and what this was all about. He came back to inform me that the official concerned was not really interested what this was all about but the fact that various CITES laws had been broken. I had no export permit which was acceptable (meaning one form from Kinshasa), no import and export permit from Kenya.
This was some of the information which was passed on by these various parties, including DHL, which had managed to make contact with the officials at JFK. I then called my friend at NIH, he called the inspector and they checked via the computer that he indeed had a valid blanco import permit for primate blood and tissue. He also informed them that it would allow him to pass on the samples to the University in question since they were close collaborators. It appears that the officials had a problem with this fact.
In the meantime I had asked DHL to process my redirecting instructions to get the shipment to NIH rather than the University. They also processed a request that alternatively the shipment should be returned to the sender. Two more days passed before DHL informed me that these requests had been refused by customs. I now picked up the phone myself leaving voice mail messages requesting a written explanation as to what exactly the problems were and if there was anything I could do to get them resolved. I sent fax messages to the same effect. I spoke to officials which informed me that the officer in charge would get back to me by Fax. Nothing.
Two weeks after the shipment arrived in JFK. DHL finally informs me that they had received an official seizure notice and there was nothing else they could do. At this stage neither me, the sender and owner of the material, nor the recipient has been officially informed what the status is.
I have in the meantime pointed out three additional facts in form of fax messages addressed to the Fish and Wildlife authorities at JFK, none having to do with CITES rules and regulations:
- that I objected to them calling the shipment illegal and suggesting to charge the recipient without any evidence in place. Nobody knows what species these hair samples came from and I had assumed that in the US the rule of : "innocent until proven guilty" applied and would they hurry up and perform the DNA tests themselves and then proceed with the evidence in hand and me having the answer to my question which was the reason to send the hair in the first place.
- I also wondered what US law had to say about the State confiscating private property without 'reading ones right' that is nothing officially in writing some two weeks after seizing the shipment.
- in one message I asked for the scientist from the Natural History Museum to be allowed to come in and repackage the material so it would not spoil. I did not receive an answer to this request either and wondered if this did not amount to the willful destruction of the property.
No response. It would appear I will have to retain a lawyer to ask these questions.
By the way the main reason for traveling to this part of the DRC was to investigate the heavy poaching of elephants for their meat, with the ivory having become a by product. Besides picking apart ground nests I did manage to document, with a video and still camera, the fact that daily several hundreds of kilos of smoked elephant meat cross the border into the CAR - representing an average of three to four elephants in an area of about 20,000 sq kms. Of course nobody has ever heard of CITES and on the CAR side there are three different government authorities charging a duty on this meat. (one ivory dealer who showed me some 200 kgs of worked ivory explained that there was absolutely no problem with border crossings since once the tusks were worked they became 'objets d'art' which had no trade restrictions on them)'
I guess at this stage I would like to ask the question, to what extend signatories to the convention should rely on and hide behind it in the face of these realties. At the one extreme you have a Fish and Wildlife official who goes by the letter of the book and as far as he is concerned the World seems to end at the Atlantic coast line of the US. At the other end you have his counter part in Central Africa whose world is one of almost total lawlessness when it comes to wildlife protection and exploitation, combined with a culture of officials trying to beat the system wherever and whenever possible and who probably has no idea where his predecessor left the 'CITES BIBLE'.
Maybe in between there are management authorities, even here in Africa, where both cultures are understood and a working formula is being found. (Richard Leakey told me once, when he was head of KWS and we talked about the bush meat trade and great ape orphans, that he would treat them like human refugees when coming out of regions embroiled in conflict. The world did not expect human refugees to flee with passports and visas why would be expect it with apes (meaning CITES import and export permits).
Maybe the CITES secretariat should set up a 'Bend the rules office', manned by an officer or a committee which can make timely decisions on geopolitical, humanitarian and other issues when it becomes clear that exiting rules do not cover certain eventualities and where local enforcement officials are not able to assess the bigger picture.
In addition I would very much welcome some suggestions, maybe by subscribers to the forum who are equally curious as I am if there are still some unknown gorilla populations out there, in one of the most remote corners of Africa, as to any possible exit to this 'African CITES maze'.
I have discussed the elephant poaching and the ground nests with the president of the MLC and while conservation is not the top priority on his list, he nevertheless appreciates the fact that wildlife and conservation issues are of great interest to the western media and that it might be in his interest to demonstrate some real leadership on the environmental front. He has agreed that I hand out his sat phone number to the media should they want to talk to him on the elephant poaching scene or possibly some of the more positive news associated with the analysis of the hair.
Maybe I should give the phone number instead to Fisheries and Wildlife Inspector X at JFK so he can explain to Mr. President that the rules come first and conservation next.
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