Congo Connection Accused of Trafficking Tons of Elephant Tusks to Asia
Vietnam Customs seized 1.5 tons of elephant tusks concealed in boxes labeled “charcoal” in 2014 (left). Thai Customs seized this four-ton haul of ivory (right) disguised in a shipment of beans in 2015. Both of these ivory seizures coming into Asia were trafficked from Congo-based companies.
(Bangkok, Pointe Noire, the Republic of the Congo, and Hanoi), August 3 – An African wildlife enforcement team arrested a group of business executives for trafficking at least 1.5 metric tons of elephant tusks to Southeast Asia. Multiple arrests made between July 28th and August 2nd concluded last night with the first court hearing for two of the accused in Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo. Both were denied bail and remain under police detention, while a wider investigation continues led by the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), a regional wildlife enforcement body for Africa, supported by national police.
Four men were originally arrested, while two were released after questioning over the past weekend. The other two detainees own shipping companies based in the Republic of the Congo that are allegedly responsible for secretly moving large consignments of elephant tusks out of West Africa to Asia, including 1,493 kilograms seized in Vietnam in 2014. The accused are also linked to a “Chinese business interest” suspected of placing the order, who may also be responsible for similarly massive shipments of elephant tusks seized by Thai, Vietnamese, and Singaporean authorities last year. Southeast Asian investigators have noted similarities among the various seizures.
The LATF investigation started shortly after one of the major seizures was reported by the Government of Vietnam to the Republic of the Congo in December 2014. The LATF then coordinated information sharing between the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other African countries where the poached elephants are believed to have originated. Then, working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), last December, an LATF team traveled to Bangkok and met with Vietnamese and Thai law enforcement officers to share information and jointly analyze the ivory trafficking cases. The arrests this week in Pointe Noire are the result of ongoing cooperation between African and Asian law enforcement agencies.
“Effective fighting of ivory smuggling on the African continent by bridging source, transit and destination countries, is our common responsibility,” said Bonaventure Ebayi, Director of LATF, which is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. “No one is above the law and should face the full force of justice anytime or anywhere he was involved in a crime.”
Experts calculate that up to 50,000 elephants, or one every 10 minutes, was poached for their tusks in Africa last year alone to feed the commercial trade in ivory. One tusk can fetch more than US$2,000 per kilo, after which a professional carver can increase a single tusk’s worth to more than US$100,000 with his handiwork. The poachers, according to ongoing investigations, are sponsored by organized crime syndicates based in Africa and Asia.
LATF and Congo officers have been undergoing specialized training by a US government-sponsored counter wildlife trafficking program to investigate ivory trafficking syndicates and other major wildlife crimes. The program is called ARREST. The African team’s visit to Asia to collaborate with Vietnamese and Thai authorities last year was also supported by the program.
ARREST is running ivory demand reduction campaigns in China and other consumer countries too. Recent studies from these campaigns show consumer demand for ivory products has gone down, pointing to the possibility that traffickers are stockpiling for the future.
“We believe several large criminal syndicates are stockpiling the tusks, deliberately driving elephants toward extinction in order to increase the price of this ‘white gold’ for possible future sales,” said Steven Galster, Director of Freeland, which runs ARREST and is a partner to LATF. “This would indicate that wholesale buyers do not think the campaigns will last long, so we need to keep them going to show that elephants are worth more alive than dead.”
“ARREST” in Africa stands for Africa’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking. It is sponsored by the US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL). “ARREST” in Asia stands for Asia’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking and is sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development Regional Development Mission for Asia. ARREST training is provided by Freeland.
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