The United Nations has targeted illegal wildlife traffickers in a pair of resolutions against African armed groups in a step conservationists say is unprecedented.
The move also marks a major shift on a problem that has morphed from an environmental issue into a security threat.
A UN Security Council resolution that renewed an arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes against armed groups in Congo now includes individuals who support those groups “through illicit trade of natural resources, including gold or wildlife as well as wildlife products”.
The Security Council passed the resolution two days after including similar language in a sanctions regime imposed on armed groups in the Central African Republic.
Conservation group WWF said the resolutions “represent the first times that the UN Security Council has specifically named illicit trade of wildlife and wildlife products in sanctions regimes”.
It follows years of warnings from advocates and UN officials that wildlife trafficking, particularly elephant ivory, has increasingly become a source of financing for armed groups.
“It’s a huge step forward,” said Wendy Elliott, WWF species programme manager. Wildlife traffickers were “funding the armed groups that are causing the human rights violations, but it is still treated as an environmental issue and that is just not going to work out”, she said.
Ms Elliot said one challenge in implementing the sanctions would be proving the connection between poachers, traffickers and armed groups. “There are a lot of wildlife traffickers who are not providing funding to armed groups,” she said. “I imagine that establishing the connection is a challenge but it can be done and has been done effectively before.”
Britain, which will host a summit on illicit wildlife trafficking next month, applauded the Security Council for approving a “sanctions regime which includes targeting those who fuel instability by illegally exploiting wildlife”.
“This provides us with another avenue to protect vulnerable species and cut off support to criminal and armed groups,” said government spokeswoman Iona Thomas.
The UN’s US ambassador, Samantha Power, said: “In recent years wildlife trafficking has become a lucrative business and a source for conflict, so it’s a sign of progress that the Security Council recognises the link between stopping poaching and advancing peace.”
The resolution also stressed the importance of preventing M23 rebels from regrouping in Congo. M23 launched a rebellion in April 2012, becoming the latest reincarnation of a Tutsi rebel group dissatisfied with the Congolese government.