SALT LAKE CITY — Federal conservation grants intended to stop overseas poaching may have paid groups that engaged in human rights abuses, including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings of indigenous people overseas.
On Monday, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, of which Utah Rep. Rob Bishop is the ranking member, sent a letter to the head of the World Wildlife Fund asking for documents detailing the group's operations in the Congo and Cameroon.
"Despite the importance of protecting wildlife and preventing species extinction, the United States cannot be a party to violations of basic human rights," the letter said. "Moreover, such abuses undermine local support for wildlife conservation efforts and may jeopardize long-term species recovery."
The bipartisan probe follows an April meeting between U.S. representatives from the organization and congressional committee staff to discuss reports of alleged human right violations, including torture, sexual assault and extrajudicial killings by ranger and paramilitary forces supported by the World Wildlife Fund.
The letter to Carter Roberts, the organization's Washington-based president and chief executive officer, asks for documentation of all grants, contracts, loans and program-related investments to World Wildlife Fund from the U.S. government for anti-poaching efforts or law enforcement activities from Jan. 1, 1998, to present. Specifically, it seeks an accounting of dollars that "wholly or partially support armed rangers or paramilitary forces."
Congress began looking into the reports of human rights abuses after Buzzfeed News reported in March that indigenous people in six Asian and African countries were tortured, raped or killed by forest rangers funded by the conservation group.
Monday's letter asks for a 2015 report commissioned by the conservation organization on its Cameroon operations and a 2017 report it commissioned on the Messok Dja National Park in the Republic of Congo.
It also demands any internal memoranda, contracts, memoranda of understanding and cooperative agreements that govern the relationship between the organization's U.S. operations and its international counterpart.
The World Wildlife Fund has until July 19 to produce the documents.
The Buzzfeed investigation, which took a year, detailed the imprisonment and torture of a villager in Nepal who ultimately died in captivity, suffering multiple broken ribs. Forest rangers believed he had buried a rhinoceros horn in his yard, although they could not produce any evidence.
Three rangers were arrested and charged with murder, according to BuzzFeed.
The conservation organization, known for its panda logo, told the congressional committee during the April meeting it is conducting its own investigation.
A committee aide said the organization's U.S. leaders consistently said any abusive behavior that may have happened over the years was done by its international counterpart and dodged questions over a written report on a particular case of abuse.
The aide said some of the conservation projects that get federal money play out in such remote areas of foreign countries that there is little to no oversight, which is concerning to staff and some committee members.
"The accountability for the money that is spent on these things is very, very low," the aide said.
Money to these organizations comes from the U.S. Department of Interior, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in particular, or the U.S. State Department.
The aide said committee staff is scheduling briefing with the Department of Interior and its international grants program for more information.
"The ultimate goal is not to get rid of species conservation and international grants, but how do we improve the accountability structure, because this can't continue to happen," the aide said. "We are talking millions of dollars here. With that amount of money needs to come oversight."