Soraya Kishtwari, Mongabay | September 30, 2021
In any one month, Adams Cassinga and his team of investigators juggle as many as 20 suspected cases of wildlife crime, only a fraction of which will result in a raid.
“In DRC, to be able to prove criminality we need to be able to catch the culprits in the act — preferably as they’re about to make a sale,” Cassinga tells Mongabay from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he coordinates operations.
Cassinga is already awake when the call comes in at 5 a.m., the news of a tip-off hitting him like a morning shot of caffeine. Cassinga’s attention is transported to Lodja airport, little more than a small strip of exposed earth in Sankuru province, smack bang in the center of the DRC, where a suspected trafficker is planning to move a cargo of 60 African gray parrots (Psittacus erithacus) by air.
A crash course in conservation
Cassinga, now 39, founded the wildlife crime investigative nonprofit Conserv Congo in 2013, with a mission to preserve the Congo Basin’s endangered flora and fauna by combating trafficking and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Equipped with a vague notion of what conservation meant, Cassinga struggled for some time to carve out a role for himself. “I had no idea how or where to even start or what the problem even was beyond the deforestation and pollution that I had spent many years witnessing. All I knew was that I wanted to be a part of the solution rather than the problem,” he says, referring to his previous incarnation as an environmental consultant for the mining industry.
Cassinga would spend the next few years volunteering as an honorary ranger at some of the DRC’s national parks, including Lomami, Salonga, and Kahuzi-Biega; the latter just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Bukavu, on the Congolese-Rwandan border, where he grew up, and home to some of the world’s last eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri).
“As I child, I could name the capitals of most countries around the world, but I knew little about the park in my backyard,” he says.
Cassinga had effectively talked his way into an unofficial two-year crash course on the front lines of conservation; inside the parks there were the rangers, whose mandates were evident enough; outside their jurisdictions, however, who was responsible for the protection of local wildlife?
“I assumed it was the job of the police, until conversations with officers revealed they didn’t believe it was their mandate to arrest poachers, despite animal protection laws. That’s when I realized there was a knowledge gap,” he says.
As a mining consultant, Cassinga had honed his skills in monitoring and evaluation through the impact assessments he provided. As a rookie conservationist, he deployed these skills to write reports and offer guidance: “I had never done law enforcement, per se, but I started writing manuals on law enforcement procedures, on surveillance and intelligence gathering,” he says.
But with a chronically underfunded (and frequently unpaid) police force, the trafficking of protected species barely registers as a priority. Cassinga soon found himself handling cases directly.
In 2017, four years after Conserv Congo was first registered, Cassinga made his first arrest, working alongside the authorities. “We learned on the job, and we made a lot of mistakes along the way,” he says. One of those mistakes was believing that once a suspect had been charged, justice would follow. Instead, it ended with the suspected trafficker bribing his way out of jail.
“We realized we couldn’t just walk away from a case, we needed to see through the legal process and find ways to counter corruption from within,” Cassinga says.
Today, Conserv Congo has a renewable five-year partnership with the state environmental agency, Congo Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), which is overseen by the environment ministry. The NGO’s work outside of protected areas is essentially an extension of the ICCN’s mandate within the boundaries of DRC’s national parks. It also provides training to law enforcement agencies to improve conviction rates, and regularly represents the ICCN in the courts following an arrest.
Cassinga places great value in winning over the hearts and minds of the police officers he works with: “They need to understand the reason behind what we do. We have to convert them into nature lovers. They can only protect what they know and love,” he says.
Full belly versus empty stomach environmentalism
In a country where almost three-quarters of all people live on less than $1.90 a day, how do you convince people to put the interests of the environment ahead of their own hunger?
You have to help them develop the means to feed themselves, Cassinga says. “The Congo is a unique country. What is scarce elsewhere, we have in abundance. We’re one of the few countries which can rely on their natural resources in a sustainable way.”
Achieving this ecological balance, however, has remained largely elusive for many Congolese communities. Conserv Congo’s agroforestry community projects aim to remedy this by providing villagers with an alternative to poaching and deforestation, equipping them with the basic knowhow to minimize their footprint and get the most from their local habitats. Educational programs, which see the NGO visiting schools to inspire a new generation of conservationists, complement these activities.
It is this holistic approach to conservation — in particular, seeing cases through from tip-off to sentencing — that makes Conserv Congo unique. Presently, it counts five staff members on its payroll, as well as an army of full-time volunteer investigators based across the country, on whom the organization depends.
“This is not a 9-to-5 job,” Cassinga says, as he outlines the profile of a typical volunteer, many of them with day jobs.
“Of the 89 people we have this month, there’s none of us who’s above 40. Half of us can communicate in at least two different languages. Three-quarters of us have been to university. More than half of us have wives and children. We have mechanics among us, army generals, policemen,” he says.
Cassinga likens the setup to that of a newsroom: “Every investigator, just like every journalist, has a contacts book. Our investigators also have their own informants. I’m usually awake at 4:30 a.m. and everybody checks in between 5, 5:30 a.m., providing details of whatever they’re working on for that day.”
His office is his cellphone, from which he currently oversees 17 different WhatsApp groups. His description conjures up a man who is thinly stretched, juggling multiple caseloads at any one time: one colleague is instructed to keep a watchful eye on a suspect; a staff administrator is asked to transfer funds over to an investigator to cover fuel for a motorbike journey; the lawyers are busy requesting a search warrant. Limited resources force Cassinga to prioritize cases based on urgency and the likelihood of intercepting wildlife and/or making an arrest.
Cases vary in their duration; the ones that lead to an arrest can go on for months. After a tip-off, an investigator typically infiltrates a network of traffickers, sometimes going undercover as a prospective client. When enough evidence has been gathered, a raid is organized in conjunction with the authorities. Once a suspect is arrested, Cassinga’s lawyers work to ensure the rule of law is followed and that a suspect is unable to pay their way out of jail.
Cassinga was personally involved in the case of a notorious “ivory kingpin” who received a two-year sentence, following his detainment, earlier this year. “For two years, he believed I was a Senegalese citizen,” he says. “We actually became friends, we would share stories and problems … It becomes tricky.”
This conflict weighs heavily on Cassinga “every day,” and is reflected in his speech, which is suddenly punctuated with pauses. “If you don’t feel that kind of guilt you are not human,” he says.
An unconventional journey
Cassinga was a teenager during the First Congo War (1996-1997) that marked the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 31-year dictatorship. It was a time of deep social and political upheaval. Cassinga’s father, fearing his son would be hurt or pressed into service as a child soldier like so many others, sent him to South Africa.
Cassinga says he was 16 when he arrived there alone, and left to fend for himself in a foreign country. “I did what I had to to survive,” he says, hinting at a life of crime on the streets of Johannesburg, tempered by many hours spent in public libraries, laboriously teaching himself to speak and write in English.
Prior to leaving the DRC, “I had grown up in an environment where you were constantly told that knowledge is in the book,” he says. Those books would become his lifeline.
When he was finally granted refugee status, his language skills landed him a job with a local newspaper in Mbombela, in northeastern South Africa. As the gateway to Kruger National Park, Nelspruit (as Mbombela was then known) offered Cassinga the opportunity to report on environmental stories, as well as the mining activities that threatened to encroach on South Africa’s largest reserve. Cassinga’s journalism career came to a premature end after he was beaten, shot and hospitalized during an investigation into the death of an initiate at a local circumcision school. But, as he says, “Once a journalist, always a journalist.”
After a year spent retraining as a health and safety specialist, he traded in his low-paid, high-risk job as a journalist for a more lucrative one in mining.
“My earnings as a senior reporter were a fifth of what they were as an entry-level environmental consultant in the mining sector,” he says.
When Cassinga first took up his post, he says he naively believed he would be helping to protect the environment. Instead, the higher up the food chain he went, the less his job was about adhering to regulatory requirements, minimizing the impact on the environment, and ensuring compliance with the law, as it was about finding ways to exploit loopholes and passing the burden of responsibility on to the state. “If we were supposed to plant trees to replace those we cut down, rather than plant them ourselves we would hand over money for others to plant them, knowing that money would be spent elsewhere.” Looking back, Cassinga says his job amounted to little more than “rubber-stamping the destruction of local habitat.”
His newfound wealth and status meant these concerns did not surface until later, however.
Cassinga’s ability to speak multiple languages helped fast-track his career. After retraining in South Africa, he was sent to Ghana. He would go on to travel extensively throughout the continent.
A few years after making the transition into mining, an opportunity to return to the DRC, as a contractor, eventually presented itself.
Cassinga was 29 when he boarded a plane in the Ugandan capital of Entebbe, en route to the gold mines of Kilo-Moto in the far northeast corner of the DRC. This, he says, was the beginning of the end of his mining career.
“We flew over the forest. I’d never seen anything like it. That tropical, thick forest canopy with little rivers and rivulets crisscrossing it, that image never left my mind. Perhaps I was emotional because I had finally made it back home, perhaps it was patriotism or wanting to right the wrong, but something started talking to me,” he says of his “eureka” moment.
Cassinga witnessed new villages mushroom along the roads built for commercial mining or logging, the new arrivals cutting yet more trees down to clear farmland or make charcoal, and pushing into the newly opened forests to hunt bushmeat to eat or sell.
His experience is backed by research. Last year, a study found that the impacts of commercial logging, mining and farming in the DRC extend well beyond operational boundaries, with subsistence agriculture and illegal woodcutting often contributing to a greater loss and degradation of forests than the operations themselves.
Cassinga’s mining career eventually ran its course. “Money can buy you almost everything, but it has its limitations, it cannot buy you passion or fill a void,” he says. “I was no longer fulfilled in what I was doing.”
Two years after boarding the plane at Entebbe, Cassinga hung up his hard hat. He has no regrets about his career choices: “I have never felt any guilt whatsoever. You have to understand, all my life I had been the underdog, I’d lived on the streets. Suddenly I had money, I could take care of my family, build my mother a small house, take care of myself — I would have done anything for money,” he says.
Notwithstanding his departure from the mining industry, Cassinga is a pragmatist. “I think everything can be done responsibly — even mining,” he says. “Without mining, we’d have no roads, no hospitals, no factories. Humans depend on mining. The only problem is that in mining, we are often running against time.” And when that happens, corners get cut, he says.
It is this spirit of nonconformism, perhaps, which best defines Cassinga, whose metamorphosis from mining executive to private intelligence conservation operative defies expectations. “I am not most people’s idea of what a conservationist looks like,” he says.
Adding: “There is this myth, which is perpetuated in Africa, that anybody who’s involved in nature conservation is probably a very well-educated person with a Ph.D. or a master’s degree in science and white.”
The con in conservation
Last year, Cassinga was named an emerging explorer by National Geographic, and was awarded $10,000, which he plowed straight back into his work. However, his NGO has yet to receive a single grant, despite a proven track record in combating wildlife trafficking.
“We are mostly self-funded,” Cassinga says. From personal savings, to friends and family members and individual donations, the organization gets by in whatever way it can.
Cassinga reflects on why his NGO and others like it have found it hard to secure funding: “We are conservation outsiders. Conservation is still foreign-dominated, it’s not an African industry,” he says.
Support, to date, has typically come in the form of material resources, like boots and uniforms, and surveillance equipment, such as hidden spy cameras.
That an organization preoccupied with promoting environmental sustainability is struggling with financial sustainability is an irony that isn’t lost on Cassinga, who believes passionately that conservation shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich.
Every so often, the racket and roar of Kinshasa’s congested streets rise above our voices as motorcycles and cars jostle for an extra inch of tarmac, while pedestrians weave their way in and out of the madness. On these streets, the presence of four-wheel-drive vehicles doesn’t go unnoticed.
“I know of international NGOs with about 30 4x4s here. What do you need 30 4x4s for in the middle of the city?” Cassinga says.
“There would be foreign conservationists coming to DRC and they’d say they were there to carry out an undercover investigation, but how can you conduct an undercover wildlife investigation if you can’t even speak the language; where you stick out like a sore thumb because they can see you’re white and they’re wary of your motives? So, if these are all the challenges that you’re faced with but you’re still uncovering information, where are you getting it from? It’s because there is a smaller [local] NGO that’s doing all the hard work, but you don’t want anyone else to know about it.”
A reputation for corruption
Endemic corruption is rife in DRC, as the former mining executive turned wildlife criminal investigator repeatedly points out. To what extent Conserv Congo is a victim of its country’s reputation is difficult to say, although it might go some way in explaining why domestic nonprofits like it struggle to get the funding they need to adequately carry out their work.
In this context, it is unsurprising that the illegal wildlife trade flourishes. “Corruption is the greasing mechanism through which wildlife trafficking thrives. Without corruption, there would be almost no wildlife crime,” Cassinga says.
In August, the director-general of the ICCN, Cosma Wilungula, was ousted due to concerns about embezzlement of funds and other corruption charges. On Aug. 13, the environment ministry appointed Olivier Mushiete as his successor.
Cassinga is elated at Mushiete’s appointment as the head of the DRC’s primary environmental protection agency. He says Mushiete has impressive agroforestry credentials: “I love it. Change is good sometimes. Change is positive.”
Over the years, Cassinga has found a way to clear a path for Conserv Congo through the jungle of corruption that plagues the country; with Mushiete at the helm, he has renewed hope for Congolese conservation and the new opportunities his leadership will bring.
Back in Lodja, it’s noon by the time the legal team have liaised with magistrates and secured a search warrant, leading to the arrest of two men, including the owner of a freight company. Two crates of 30 African gray parrots each are seized and Cassinga’s team is already busy working on sending them to a place of safety. In Kinshasa, the improvised raid sends an adrenaline rush coursing through Cassinga’s veins, making him lose his appetite — an occupational hazard.
“Everything we work towards is for this. To suddenly get this result, even though we did not expect or plan for this,” Cassinga says, not quite believing his luck. Although luck is only part of the equation: “Sometimes, these are like barometers which measure and reflect how much work you’ve put in.”
However, when Mongabay checks back in, a few days later, lady luck has thrown Conserv Congo a curveball, underscoring what conservation in DRC is up against: the NGO has unwittingly stumbled on a large trafficking network involving officials at the Ministry for Environment.
“We have always suspected that officials were involved in issuing permits and facilitating the movement of these birds, but we never had a ‘hand in the cookie jar’ moment — until now”, Cassinga says. The two suspects caught, it turns out, “are just the tip of the iceberg”, and under interrogation, they have given up the names of those involved.
“We are finding out who issues the documents, who facilitates the entry into the airport, and we’re following the tracks. One by one they are being called to appear before the courts. They range from simple permit-authorizing officials from the department, to policemen, to the military”, he adds. “It is a whole network of traffickers and we aim to dismantle it”.
A deflated Cassinga also delivers the news that half the parrots have succumbed to either death or theft. “The court returns the birds to us, after reviewing the ‘evidence’, but we can’t move them without permission,” says Cassinga. “The parrots in the cages contaminate each other with whatever diseases one of them might have; they die.”
Funding setbacks and a kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare cause further delays. In a small village, with substandard infrastructure, a robbery is easy to pull off: There is a break-in.
“It is tormenting, I am hyperventilating. I’m just too emotional to even talk about it, it’s a lot of work and sometimes it’s tiring and if you don’t have a strong heart, sometimes you feel like giving up,” Cassinga says.
“But if we give up, what is going to happen?”