DRC Officials’ Visas Banned By USA for Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

These officials have been found culpable of abusing their public office to traffic endangered wildlife, including chimpanzees, gorillas, and Okapi, to China.

In a significant move to support wildlife conservation efforts, the United States government has taken a decisive stand against corruption and wildlife trafficking by imposing a visa ban on several high-ranking officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The ban, announced by the U.S. State Department on Thursday, August 17, 2023, reflects the U.S.’s commitment to combat corruption and support global conservation initiatives.

The individuals facing the visa ban include Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa, the former Director General of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN); Leonard Muamba Kanda, former Department Head of the DRC Management Authority for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and Director of ICCN; and Augustin Ngumbi Amuri, Director-Coordinator of the DRC CITES Management Authority and Legal Advisor to ICCN.

Their involvement in trafficking protected wildlife through falsified permits, primarily to the People’s Republic of China, has been deemed a significant violation of their responsibilities to protect and conserve the unique flora and fauna of the DRC.

Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, stated that these officials “abused their public office by trafficking chimpanzees, gorillas, Okapi, and other protected wildlife from the DRC, primarily to the People’s Republic of China, using falsified permits in exchange for bribes.”

An Okapi also known as ‘Forest Giraffe’ or ‘Okapia johnstoni’. Photo courtesy: Britannica

He asserted that this transnational criminal activity not only undermines rule of law and transparency in the DRC but also hampers ongoing wildlife conservation efforts, putting iconic species like the Congo gorilla and Okapi at risk.

“Their corrupt, transnational criminal actions not only undermined rule of law and government transparency in the DRC but also long-standing wildlife conservation efforts.” he added as part of his official statement on the matter.

This illicit trade not only harmed the animals themselves but also contributed to the depletion of the DRC’s rich biodiversity. The DRC is home to various endangered species, including the Congo gorilla and the Okapi, which have already faced threats from habitat loss and poaching.

While these actions are a cause for celebration among conservationists, the situation in the DRC remains dire. The ICCN, located in North Kivu, has struggled to operate effectively due to security challenges posed by numerous armed groups in the region. Guards from both the ICCN and Virunga Park, a protected area under the Institute, have tragically lost their lives in the line of duty.

M├ęthode Uhoze, Head of External Relations and Community Involvement at the Virunga Foundation, reported that seven Virunga Park security guards have been killed since the beginning of the year, further highlighting the dangers faced by those committed to protecting wildlife.

The U.S. statement, however, did not directly link these officials to the killings. The focus remains on their involvement in wildlife trafficking and corruption.

A poached Gorilla in transit in Congo’s Virunga National Park (Africa’s oldest National Park). Photo courtesy: National Geographic

The U.S. action is rooted in Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023. By imposing the visa ban, the U.S. sends a strong message that it stands with those who are striving to disrupt wildlife trafficking and bring accountability to corrupt officials and transnational criminals. This step also hints at the U.S.’s dedication to combating corruption, which obstructs economic prosperity and social development in various countries.

The actions of these officials may have tarnished their reputation and harmed the environment, but the response from the U.S. serves as a beacon of hope. Interestingly, this ban not only applies to the officials themselves but extends to their spouses as well.

By holding those accountable for their actions, we can collectively work towards a future where wildlife trafficking and corruption are eradicated, ensuring a safer and more sustainable planet for generations to come.

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