By Jacob Tweh, Communication Officer, Wild Chimpanzee Foundation
For the first time in the Taï-Grebo-Krahn-Sapo (TGKS) Transboundary Forest Landscape shared by Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, convictions have been made for illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking on the Liberian side. The quick crackdown on these unlawful acts is credited to the work of the Transboundary Law Enforcement Technical Committee (TLETC), which has helped to build up an informants’ network and support relevant institutions in combating wildlife crimes and other unlawful practices within the perimeter of the TGKS protected landscapes.
In 2018, the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (WCF), with support from the USAID-funded West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) Program, supported the creation of the TLETC to improve collaboration and enforcement in TGKS. Its overarching aim is to address the root causes of illegal cross-border trafficking, better understand emerging ecological threats, and find solutions to minimize the impact of biodiversity loss in the region. Prior to forming the TLETC, inadequate coordination led to a general lack of enforcement by authorities and the judiciary in both countries, with a large number of natural resources, such as bushmeat, chewing sticks, and timber being illegally taken across the Liberian–Ivorian border.
The TLETC sought to include the insight and support of a wide range of stakeholders to ensure better collaboration and overall effectiveness. Thus, a committee was formed that includes the Liberian and Ivorian governments represented by those agencies managing natural resources, such as Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency, and Ministry of Mines and Energy; and Côte d’Ivoire’s Office of Parks and Reserves, Forest Development Corporation, and Ministry of Water and Forest. Each country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs are also represented on the committee. County superintendents, prefects, judicial actors, members of the joint security services, as well as local community leaders, traditional leaders, and nongovernmental partners, also have a voice on the committee. Over a series of meetings held in both countries, committee members developed an action plan to guide their work that included strategies for effective information-sharing.
The creation of the TLETC not only brought Liberian and Ivorian law enforcement stakeholders together, it also helped representatives from each country see their own gaps as compared to the other and come up with ways to better coordinate among themselves in the fight against wildlife crime in their country. Recommendations and increased awareness about existing laws resulting from these meetings have proven extremely valuable for determining and implementing conservation strategies. The inclusion of judicial and other joint security actors in the TLETC, in particular, has yielded positive results.
As a direct response to illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking, two examples from Liberia can be counted as major successes for the TLETC. The first conviction took place in August 2019, when Stephen Barlee, a poacher, was arrested and prosecuted after attempting to sell a baby chimpanzee in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia. The presiding judge at the Zwedru Magisterial Court is a member of the TLETC and sentenced the defendant to 3 months of imprisonment after he plead guilty to illegal possession of a baby chimpanzee. The court decision took many people in the courtroom by surprise, as it was the first time in Zwedru that someone was sentenced to jail for chimpanzee poaching and trafficking, despite the fact that chimpanzees are highly protected under Liberian law. The second conviction happened in December 2019, when Tonia Doe was sentenced to 1-month imprisonment at the Grand Gedeh County Palace of Correction after he was found guilty of killing a pygmy hippopotamus, an endangered species and one of Liberia’s protected animals, within the proposed Krahn-Bassa National Park.
WCF and the governments of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire hope that these two arrests will serve as a deterrent for other poachers and traffickers. There is also hope for continued collaboration and strengthening of law enforcement efforts made easier through the TLETC.
“Networking has improved because I can sit in Monrovia and call the regional commander of police in the southeast and the county attorneys of Sinoe, Grand Gedeh, and River Gee Counties for their support in fighting wildlife crime,” noted Abednego Gbarway, FDA Wildlife Manager. “This was not happening before.”