Mongabay

7 June 2018

• Eight men, including three government officials, all from African countries, have been arrested for allegedly trafficking wildlife body parts to Southeast Asia.

• Officers from the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, based in Nairobi, Kenya, used data analytics software to track down the alleged smugglers, who were arrested in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo in May.

• The investigation linked the accused to shipments of pangolin scales and elephant tusks seized in Southeast Asia.

A multinational search in May resulted in the arrest of eight men, including three government officials, for allegedly smuggling pangolin scales and elephant tusks, according to Freeland, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking outfit.

The Lusaka Agreement Task Force, a group of wildlife officers based in Nairobi, Kenya, apprehended the suspects, all of whom are from Africa, after a four-week pursuit across seven countries.

“Our ability to make so many key arrests in such a short period of time was due to the sharing and analysis of critical data, enabled by advanced training and technology,” Bonaventure Ebayi, the task force’s executive director, said in a statement.

A tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) killed by a farmer in the Republic of Congo. Image © Lucie Escouflaire/WCS.

Freeland credited a February training seminar held in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, with supplying the enforcement officers with the know-how to leverage new technology as part of the task force’s Analytical Center of Excellence, or ACE. Task force members used the analytics software to tease apart the available data on trafficking and seizures and identify points where the smuggling networks intersected with shipping agents and government offices.

The team zeroed in on the seizure of nearly 4 tons of pangolin scales by authorities in Vietnam on April 20. Freeland estimates that the scales probably came from 1,000 of the anteater-like animals and could have fetched $2.6 million on the black market. Pangolins, whose scales are valued for their use in traditional medicines, are often called “the world’s most trafficked mammal.” The four African species are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Asia’s four species are considered endangered or critically endangered.

The alleged smugglers are also linked to a consignment of elephant tusks discovered in Thailand in September 2017.

Sean O’Regan, who directs Freeland in Africa, said the survival of the continent’s wildlife depended on exposing these networks.

“Moving beyond seizures and low level arrests to high level takedowns like this are what wild elephants, pangolins and other endangered species desperately [need] right now,” O’Regan said in the statement.  “People benefit too: we are finding that these same criminal chains are used to traffic everything.”

Scientists have found that elephant numbers in Africa are decreasing by about 8 percent a yearly, mostly as a result of poaching. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The arrests took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Three of those detained work for their respective governments as inspectors of commercial shipments. Another, Djani Ousmane, is from the West African country of Guinea and is described as a wildlife product trafficking “kingpin.”

Five of the men have been convicted and ordered to serve prison time and pay fines.

“Wildlife protectors in Africa are starting to catch up with poachers and traffickers,” Jimmiel Mandima, a Washington, D.C.-based director of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), said in the statement. AWF has partnered with Freeland to counter wildlife trafficking.

The investigators believe that Vietnam and Thailand were waypoints for the shipments of scales and ivory en route buyers in China, including the Beijing-based China National Township Enterprise Corporation. Despite the country’s closure of most legal ivory outlets in January, rising incomes continue to stoke demand for carved ivory figurines, ornaments and jewelry, many conservation groups say.

Confiscated pangolin scales in Cameroon. Image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

With this new set of tools, Ebayi, the task force’s director, said these sorts of busts would continue.

“[Investigations] will continue until we have dismantled all illicit supply chains that are endangering our continent’s wildlife,” he said.

Banner image of an African elephant in Tanzania by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.