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Confronting Central Africa's Poaching Crisis

Central African countries hope international aid will help slow down poaching in the region.
Central African countries hope international aid will help slow down poaching in the region.

In Central Africa, wildlife poaching has become a form of war. Isolated hunters with primitive weapons have been replaced by well-funded, highly organized groups of foreign poachers. These poachers are heavily armed, and extremely thorough -- they'll kill everything that moves, including people.

By some accounts these paramilitary poaching teams are getting bigger and more destructive. They're a threat to wildlife and political stability. But NPR's John Nielsen reports attempts are under way to turn this trend around.

Until the end of the 1980s, the forests and savannahs on the eastern side of the Central African Republic were full of wild animals. Local hunters and a few poachers killed everything they could eat, and it seemed to make little difference.

Then, in the 1990s, the resource wars began. Large and alarmingly well-organized gangs of poachers came west from Sudan. Hides and meat were cut from the carcasses of lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena, buffalo and elephant.

It was horrible, a tour guide said, speaking to a film crew that later sold some of its footage to NPR. Poachers used anti-tank weapons to blow the heads off elephants. Forests and savannahs were burned to the ground. Groups of animals were killed en masse. The meat is smoked and shiped to crowded African cities, or to exotic restaurants in Asia and Europe.

Dirt-poor governments faced with problems ranging from health care crises to armed rebellions have been powerless to stop the so-called "bushmeat" trade, conservationists say.

Poaching expert Kathi Austin directs the arms and conflict program at a non-profit group called the Fund for Peace. She's tracked African poaching trends since 1987, and says poaching grew more destructive as the market for bushmeat was commercialized, then militarized.

Austin says profits from the sale of bushmeat can be enormous. She predicts war-like bushmeat hunts will be more common in the years ahead, unless governments of Central African countries find the will and the money needed to reverse these trends.

But outside help -- long absent as diplomats and funding sources largely ignored the crisis -- may now be on the way. At a recent U.N. environmental summit in South Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the United States would contribute more than $50 million to an ambitious plan to preserve wildlife and habitat in the Congo River basin. American environmental groups, American logging companies, the European Union, and other countries have pledged tens of millions of dollars more.

If this initiative proceeds as planned, poachers in the Congo Basin will be tracked by observers, barred from logging roads and shunned by governments that used to look the other way. They will also be confronted by well-trained, well-equipped park guards.

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John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.