Book Cover to ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS, Paperback Edition, by Laurel Neme, PhD

ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS, How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species
By Laurel A. Neme, PhD

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National Geographic: Chaos and Confusion Following Elephant Poaching in a Central African World Heritage Site PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Monday, 13 May 2013 00:00
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As poachers fired on forest elephants inside the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a World Heritage Site in the Central African Republic (CAR), the impotence of foreign governments and non-governmental organizations in preventing the slaughter of wildlife amid political chaos was, once again, revealed.

Earlier this week, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that on May 6 a group of 17 heavily armed poachers, who presented themselves as part of the transitional Séléka government but were of Sudanese origin, entered the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.

They then headed to Dzanga Bai, a large clearing where between 50 and 200 elephants gather at any given time during the day and night for the mineral salts. Ecoguards later reported that they saw these poachers fire at elephants from the observation platform used by scientists and tourists.

Located in southwestern CAR, the Dzanga-Sangha reserve (which includes the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park) is part of the Sangha River Tri-National Protected Area (TNS), which includes Nouabalé Ndoki National Park (NNNP) in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Lobéké National Park in Cameroon. Dzanga-Sangha is home to rare western lowland gorillas and more than 1,000 forest elephants. (This population is part of several thousand that share habitat with NNNP.)

While most World Heritage sites in elephant range states are seriously affected by poaching, the remoteness of the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, combined with on-the-ground support by WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), have helped protect it from major poaching incidents. Until now.

For the past 30 years WWF, WCS, and the CAR government have collaborated on programs within the Dzanga–Sangha protected areas that both protect wildlife and support livelihoods for hundreds of local people.

For nearly 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also has supported efforts in the park, including funding research on the forest elephants that use Dzanga Bai.

Dozens of Elephants Dead

Following the retreat of poachers on the evening of May 8, ecoguards explored Dzanga Bai the next day and found more than 26 elephant carcasses: 20 adults and four youngsters in the clearing itself and two in the river nearby. All their tusks had been hacked off.

An assessment of additional damage, possibly including other elephant carcasses in the surrounding forest and smaller clearings, is ongoing. It is reported that at least one of the camps in the park has been ransacked.


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.

Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai, CAR. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


A Surprise

The violent incursion took conservationists by surprise. Months earlier, groups of poachers originating from Sudan, who were killing elephants in the Ngotto forest (some 60 miles from Dzanga Sangha), had been successfully blocked from advancing toward Dzanga-Sangha by government troops supported by WWF.

WWF staff in the area thought the poachers had left the region and started their trek back to Sudan in order to beat river levels rising in the rains; their donkeys and camels would be unable to cross the swollen rivers.

While lawlessness in the area had increased over the last two months—rebels repeatedly pillaged park headquarters and WWF offices, and there had been some local elephant poaching—nobody was ready for the methodical attack.

Since 2010, poachers had sought the Dzanga Bai elephant clearing, but conservationists had managed to prevent them from reaching it.

“We didn’t expect to find our worst nightmare: the most experienced elephant killers of these parts of Central Africa,” said Bas Huijbregts, who leads the Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign for WWF in Central Africa.

“With our staff evacuated after the pillaging,” Huijbregts said, “our main priority was maintaining a minimum protection presence to stop local poachers from going on a rampage in the park while continuing to try to mobilize reinforcements from central government troops in Bangui. We were not prepared for this.”


Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.

Elephant slaughter at Dzanga Bai. Photograph courtesy of WWF.


Who Are the Poachers?

Who are the poachers? The answer is unclear. The vehicle carrying the group into the park was branded as Séléka. The poachers did not speak the local language or French.

“We understand that these Sudanese poachers came with a mission order from Séléka powers in Bangui,” Huijbregts said.

In March, Séléka, which means “union” in the local Sango language and is an alliance of seven opposition groups, finally ousted former CAR President François Bozizé. Chaos has reigned since then.

There have been many reports of looting, rapes, killings, and other human rights abuses since the takeover. On April 29, the UN Security Council issued a statement expressing strong concern about the worsening humanitarian and security situation and the weakening of CAR institutions.

The Séléka-dominated government is having a very difficult time establishing control over the country. There are many fighters who report to no one, and many splinter groups, who refer to themselves as Séléka but who may or may not be part of the “official” alliance. It seems that each of the seven members of the alliance has its own chief of staff and armed fighters.

One such subsidiary of Séléka is currently stationed in Bayanga, a town near the park, where they’re in charge of protecting Chinese diamond prospectors. Unlike previous groups who sacked  the region, these men are reportedly well-disciplined. They have helped reestablish some rule of law and have had meetings with local authorities and ecoguards.

On Wednesday, this subsidiary delivered a message to the poachers in the park from the Séléka leadership in Bangui asking them to leave the park immediately and report to the Bayanga-based Séléka.

It appears that the poachers obeyed. According to WWF, by the evening of May 8, they had left the park with their truck fully loaded with ivory.

Since the shooting, WWF reports that no elephants have been seen in the area.

What Is Happening Now?

The CAR ministry of environment in Bangui was expected imminently to announce a mission to secure the area in and around the Dzanga-Sangha protected areas. But when that announcement will be made, what such a mission would be, and who would be involved is unclear.

It would likely be made up of agents from the ministry of environment, plus some compilation of other forces. These could include members from one or more of the seven groups that make up Séléka and perhaps some of the official armed forces, who reportedly have little or no weapons or equipment.

As of May 10, most of the park’s 42 ecoguards are back at their posts—watching and waiting.

“We’re at war right now, and it’s foggy,” explains Richard Ruggiero, Chief, Branch of Asia and Africa at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ruggiero has worked on the ground in Central Africa for over 20 years. “The possibility exists that we can turn this around in the very near future.”

Indeed, it’s not the first time conservationists have faced this situation. In 1997, rebels threatened to wipe out elephant herds in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and a group of dedicated conservationists and government rangers successfully prevented it.

“We are considering all options,” Huijbregts said. “We urge the government in Bangui to send the support troops to the area that were promised almost two weeks ago. In the meantime, we continue to support the local rangers, who, against all odds, are still doing their job.”

The Greater Malady

Whatever actions are taken to resolve this crisis, the larger issue is the underlying incentive for the elephant poaching: high demand and high ivory prices.

“What we’re seeing in Dzanga-Sangha is a symptom of a greater malady,” Ruggiero said. “The malady is human selfishness and ignorance that produces the market that causes all of this demand. We’re seeing the symptoms being played out in CAR. The disease is greater and comes from elsewhere.”

“At the end of the day, one of two things will end poaching,” Huijbregts added. “Either there is no more demand, or there are no more elephants. The choice is up to us.”


Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews

Baby forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) amidst other elephants in Dzanga Bai, a forest clearing in Dzanga Sangha Protected Area, CAR. Copyright WWF-Canon/Carlos Drews

Filming of Mad Max sequel wreaks havoc on Namibia's desert ecosystem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Thursday, 11 April 2013 14:57
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The Namib desert is a remarkable but fragile ecosystem, containing many endemic species. One of these is the desert plant Welwitschia mirabilis, one of the longest lived organisms on the planet,with a lifespan of 500 to 1500 years.

In 2012, areas of the Dorob and Namib Naukluft National Parks were utilized as site locations for the filming of a sequel (Fury Road) to the popular Mad Max film series. During these operations, vehicles were permitted to drive off the official tracks, with the understanding that the area would be rehabilitated immediately thereafter. Film crews also camped in previously pristine areas.

As might be expected, these activities scarred the surface of the fragile topsoils across many thousands of hectares, and sensitive plants and animals were in direct line of driving. No Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out beforehand, so there is no baseline to assess the extent of damage caused by the filming.

To rehabilitate the area after filming, chains and nets were dragged across the landscape to partially erase the visual scars. However, these activities further damaged an even wider area, and dragged over surviving plants and animals.



Another paltry fine for ivory smuggling PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Tuesday, 02 April 2013 12:08
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On March 26, a Chinese man (Tian Yi) admitted smuggling 439 pieces of ivory from Democratic Republic of Congo to Hong Kong via Nairobi. He was caught at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on March 10, 2013 while in transit from DRC to Hong Kong.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, the contraband had been chopped into pieces of two inches each and painted brown. They were then hidden in a suitcase and mixed with tree barks to disguise it as traditional medicine. But he was detected and intercepted by a joint security team comprising Kenya Airports Police Unit, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Kenya Airways (KQ) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

On March 25, the Kenyan (Makadara Law Court in Nairobi) court fined him KSh30,000 (about US$350). Not surprisingly, he has paid the fine and has been set free.

For more information, see:


Thailand's Prime Minister Pledges to End Ivory Trade PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Sunday, 03 March 2013 11:59
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Great news! Thailand's Prime Minister pledged to end ivory trade in Thailand. The announcement was made at CITES COP16 which opened today, Sunday. This follows a massive petition drive urging and ivory ban. Thailand is currently the largest illegal ivory market behind China. However, work still needs to be done to monitor the situation. The PM gave no timeline, and the deputy director of Parks and Wildlife Dept said there were no immediate plans for a domestic ivory ban. For more information, see:

Overview of CITES 16th Conference of Parties: Interview with CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laurel Neme   
Sunday, 03 March 2013 11:57
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Overview of the CITES 16th Conference of Parties in Bangkok

By Laurel Neme, special to
March 01, 2013

Part 1 of 3

This interview is an excerpt from The WildLife with Laurel Neme, a program that explores the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators. "The WildLife" airs every Monday from 1-2 pm EST on WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont. You can livestream it at or download the podcast from iTunes, or

Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.

With rapidly rising ivory demand fueling large-scale elephant slaughter across Africa, the ivory trade will be a top issue of debate at CITES. Photo by Rhett Butler


When countries meet in Bangkok, Thailand for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 16th Conference of Parties (CoP16), to be held from March 3-14, they’ll consider 70 proposals submitted by 55 States regarding a range of species, from polar bears to turtles and tropical timbers.

To help sort through the many agenda items, CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon provided the following overview of the most significant issues.

According to Scanlon, of particular note are proposals from range states to list high-value timber species, including several rosewood species. These requests represent a considerable shift from several years ago, when these same range states resisted including commercially valuable timber under CITES. Now, the international community is turning to CITES as a reliable and useful instrument for regulating international trade in commercially valuable timber.

John Scanlon. Courtesy of CITES

Whether that will also happen for commercially valuable marine species is anyone’s guess. At CoP16, parties will consider proposals to list several species of sharks and rays. Similar proposals were rejected at the last Conference of Parties (held in Doha in 2010). At that time, economics appeared to overtake science as the basis for decision-making regarding marine species. Notably, the rejection of the shark proposals sparked controversy over both the use of secret ballots and how CITES should manage commercially valuable marine species. Both issues will likely be intensely debate at CITES CoP16.

Also generating diverging opinions is the question of whether the polar bear should be uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I. A similar proposal was rejected at CoP15 in 2010. While the situation has changed since then – this proposal has support from more range states and there is more data available – it remains contentious. The debate appears to center around the anticipated declines of polar bear populations being caused primarily by habitat loss from climate warming, with international trade exacerbating that trend rather than being its main driver.

The following edited interview with CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon was transcribed by Kirstin Fagan. To listen to it in its entirety, please visit For more on CITES and the upcoming meeting, see:


Laurel Neme: What are the main items to be discussed at the upcoming CITES Conference of Parties?

John Scanlon: There are a huge number of issues, and I’ll have to speak generally because, as with our agenda as always, there are a multiplicity of different species and different issues that arise, and have different implications. If you look at the listing side of things, in terms of what proposals there are either to include or exclude, or uplist or downlist, there are quite significant proposals.

Many dipterocarp species have been overharvested in Malaysia and Indonesia due to the logging industry. Photo by Rhett Butler


Laurel Neme: In your opinion, what might be the most significant?

John Scanlon: I think one of the most significant is the number of proposals that are coming from range states to list high value timber species. A number of years ago, there was some resistance to incorporating a commercially valuable timber species under CITES. We’ve seen a significant transition there, where we now see range states seeing the benefit of CITES, and requesting the CoP to list their species under either Appendix I or II. We’ve gone from 10-20 timber species under the convention, to 350 now.

We’ve got several hundred species proposed for listing at this CoP, including most of Madagascar’s commercially valuable timber species. That’s a big shift.

Laurel Neme: Why the shift?

John Scanlon: [In part] it’s coincided with the collaboration we have with the International Tropical Timber Organization, which is one of our best collaborations. We’re moving into phase 2 of a project with them, it’s a $7.5 million project, which assists range states to do the science they need, to do the non-detriment findings to ensure the sustainability of trade.

So I think here we’ve seen the international community turn to CITES as a reliable and useful instrument in regulating international trade in commercially valuable timber. That’s a big shift, and we will see how parties will respond to proposals at this CoP. But a lot of the difference of opinion that was around that issue to start with seems to have dissipated with quite a collective view now as to the value of CITES in dealing with international trade in timber. I found that significant.


Laurel Neme: What about the proposals regarding sharks? Is there a similar opinion?

John Scanlon: We also have the issue of marine species, with five sharks and the manta ray in particular, being proposed for listing. This continues to be a rather contentious issue under the convention, the extent to which CITES should manage marine species, in particular those that are commercially valuable, and it will be interesting to see which way the parties decide to go on this occasion.

Laurel Neme: What is the assessment on the amendments from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Expert Advisory Panel?

John Scanlon: The science that has come from the FAO expert panel seems to support listing of the species that have been proposed for listing, the sharks and the manta ray. Certainly, nowhere are the comments from the FAO suggesting that listing would not be appropriate.

Laurel Neme: What does that mean regarding the overall question of how CITES should manage commercially valuable marine species?

John Scanlon: We’re seeing FAO recognize that CITES could be a valuable complementary instrument to other management measures where it’s effectively and properly implemented. So, there it’s interesting. We’ve seen FAO now recognize the potential value of CITES, but there remain differences of opinion amongst parties with some preferring not to enter CITES but rather place reliance upon the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, for example. That difference of opinion will be played out at the CoP. They have the best science available to them, but the CoP is sovereign. They can determine for themselves whether to accept the science or not, and whether to list further marine species under CITES or not.

Laurel Neme: At the last conference of parties [CoP15 in 2010 at Doha], a number of proposals to list certain shark species were rejected, and reports were that political and commercial interests overtook the science. Do you expect that same controversy to come up in CoP16? What’s different now regarding the listing proposals of some of those same species of sharks?

John Scanlon: I think there’s some more robust science. I think we have engaged over the last three years with the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMO), including ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas]. I personally appeared before ICCAT. We have a letter of understanding with them. I also appeared before FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI). We had a meeting with FAO in Genazzano in Italy with experts from across the field, including fisheries experts, and the outcome of that meeting recognized that CITES has a valuable role in contributing to the work of RFMOs and other management options. We see the FAO panel convened. We see recommendations and other comments supporting listing under CITES, and the valuable role it can play.

But the CoP is sovereign. The CoP can accept or reject the advice it’s provided. There are differences of opinion, in particular whether or not you should utilize CITES or rely upon the RFMOs, and that’s where there’s a philosophical difference of opinion amongst parties. But we have to respect that a CoP, like a parliament or a congress or a diet or a duma or anything else, is sovereign. They have reserved unto themselves the sovereign right to decide to accept or reject the scientific evidence. We present them with the best possible science, and in that sense it’s no different to what you see under the Climate Convention. They actually have the whole architecture of the IPCC to inform them. The parties have not necessarily decided to run with the science that’s presented to them. So here, I think, we, as a general rule, see our parties align themselves very closely with the science, and I think that’s a strength at the convention. But there are times when there are philosophical differences, and parties will have to decide amongst themselves where they want to utilize CITES.

CITES can be used for any species, there’s no restriction there. But they’ll have to decide for themselves where and when they choose to use CITES in areas where it hasn’t historically been as active. I think the timber issue seems to be now an area where parties are very keen to use it. Commercially valuable fisheries tend to be an area where there are some issues. But the other thing with sharks and rays, you see that they are not regulated to the same extent as other commercially valuable species under RFMOs, and there will be some debate around that. So, let’s see. It’s up to the parties as to whether or not they want to use the instrument. What is interesting is that the FAO certainly has acknowledged the value of CITES as a complementary instrument, and that’s a significant step forward. And, let’s see.

But I think the important thing to do is that we have to respect the sovereignty of the CoP, and the parties will make their choice informed by the best science. But they can also choose to decide that they prefer to work through other instruments rather than CITES. We’ll watch with interest to see which way they decide to go at this CoP.


Laurel Neme: What proposals are relevant to recent spikes in illegal killings of elephant and rhinos?

John Scanlon: A number of measures will be considered there. There are no proposals for opening up trade on the table anymore, with Tanzania having withdrawn its proposal. There are some proposals coming forward to extend the moratorium, to look at a decision-making mechanism for ivory trade, and another one looking at whether there should be a suspension of any trophy hunting in rhinos. They will all be relatively contentious issues that will be discussed. Matters around enforcement, and these other issues on African elephants and rhinos will be important.


Laurel Neme: Polar bears are back on the agenda.

John Scanlon: The polar bear, and whether it should be uplisted from Appendix II to Appendix I is generating a lot of attention. That will be one that I think will generate some diverging opinions, and we’ll see what happens there.

The pet trade takes a heavy toll of some species, especially birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.Photo by Rhett Butler


Laurel Neme: What are some of the main non-species agenda items?

John Scanlon: I’ve mentioned the financial mechanism: should CITES have a financial mechanism?

[In addition,] the whole issue of secret ballots and how many votes should be required before you move to a secret ballot. Should it be ten, as it currently is? Should it be one-third? Should it be fifty percent? That will be debated, as will issues to do with conflict of interest, or potential conflict of interest, of members of the two science committees.

And, on a lighter note, we have the host government [Thailand] proposing World Wildlife Day for 3rd March in recognition of the 40th anniversary, and the date at which the convention was signed, the third of March [1973], and saying that there should be an international day upon which we celebrate wildlife worldwide.

[Also,] our Strategic Vision is up for review. We have built into it reference to the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and the Aichi targets. Again, that seems uncontroversial but it is a step forward in what is referred to as “the synergies”. Switzerland’s proposing some work to be done on enhancing synergies between biodiversity conventions. So, there are a number of other issues that will generate some debate, but perhaps not the same level of debate as some of those that are higher up on the agenda.

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