UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council has targeted illegal wildlife traffickers for sanctions in a pair of resolutions against African armed groups, a step conservationists called unprecedented and a major shift on a problem that has morphed from an environmental issue into a security threat.
A resolution that renewed an arms embargo, travel bans and asset freezes against armed groups in Congo included individuals who support those groups "through illicit trade of natural resources, including gold or wildlife as well as wildlife products." The Security Council approved the resolution Thursday, two days after including similar language in a sanctions regime imposed on armed groups in the Central African Republic.
The conservation group WWF said the resolutions "represent the first times that the U.N. Security Council has specifically named illicit trade of wildlife and wildlife products in sanctions regimes." The move follows years of warnings from advocates and U.N. 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 program manager. Wildlife traffickers "are 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."
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 Iona Thomas, a British government spokeswoman.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power also praised the measures in two tweets. "New progress in fight against endangered wildlife trafficking," she wrote. "Poachers supporting armed groups in CAR and Congo now face travel ban & asset freeze."
Thursday's Security Council resolution also stressed the importance of preventing M23 rebels from regrouping in Congo. Earlier this month, the top U.N. envoy in Congo said there were "credible reports" that the rebels were resuming activities despite its military defeat and a peace agreement with the Congolese government last month.
A heated argument erupted between Congo and Rwanda during the Security Council meeting, with their ambassadors trading insults over allegations that each country is supporting rival armed groups.
A U.N. experts report released last week said there was "credible information" that M23 rebels were recruiting inside Rwanda. The Security Council resolution, meanwhile, expressed concern about reports that Congolese soldiers are aiding another armed group known as the FDLR.
Rwandan Ambassador Eugene Gasana dismissed the experts' report as baseless. Congolese Ambassador Gata Mavita demanded that U.N. officials provide evidence of Congolese army support for the FDLR.
The Congo conflict is a spillover from the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Hundreds of Hutus who participated in the mass slaughter escaped into Congo and still fight there.
In their report, the U.N. experts said the slaughter of elephants in Congo "is one of the most tragic consequences of years of war and poor governance."
In Garamba National Park, a census showed fewer than 2,000 elephants were left in 2012, compared to 22,000 in the 1960s. The report said the Lord's Resistance Army maintains bases in the park and have engaged in firefights with park rangers, including a shooting in May 2013 that left two girls dead.
The report said that another armed group, Mai Mai Morgan, is "infamous for poaching elephants in the Okapi Fauna Reserve," though its focus in 2013 shifted toward attacking gold mines.
In a report last year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said there were signs that the illegal trade in elephant ivory constitutes an important source of funding for armed groups including the LRA, whose fighters moved into Congo, South Sudan and Central Africa Republic after Ugandan troops flushed them out of their country.
Ban said some African governments are using the army as well as police and paramilitary forces to hunt down poachers. He said poachers are using more sophisticated and powerful weapons, including some that may have originated from the fallout of the uprising in Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.
Conservationist say a thriving ivory trade market in Asia is helping fuel the worst poaching epidemic of African elephants in decades. According to the WWF, over 20,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory tusks, many of them in Central Africa conflict zones.
Elliot, of the WWF, said one challenge in implementing the sanctions will 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.