Seized ivory may have came from as many as 140 poached elephants

  • In this week’s crime blotter: a huge ivory bust, an elk poached by wildlife authorities, and three tortoises in a plastic bag.
By Sophie Tremblay
Willy Lowry

Tanzanian authorities announced on Monday that they had seized 1.4 tons of elephant tusks and arrested a group of major international ivory dealers in Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city.

The ivory was discovered in late June at a house in Kimara, a mostly upper class suburb, by officials with a specialized wildlife crime task force that is part of Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU).

According to Elisifa Ngowi, the head of the NTSCIU task force, the tusks had been cut into 660 pieces, and suspects in custody allegedly revealed that the ivory was being readied for export to Vietnam and China.

Ngowi estimates that the pieces added up to 280 tusks from 140 elephants. Experts with the unit estimated the seized ivory to be worth 4.6 billion Tanzanian shillings (two million dollars). Tanzania’s Director of Criminal Investigations, Diwani Athumani, says it was one of the biggest seizures in the country’s history.

Earlier, Tanzanian police and officials with the unit had detained and interrogated dozens of people, which eventually led them to the leaders of the poaching network. Seven people, including two Ugandans and two Guineans, were arrested in connection with the seizure. They’re facing charges of heading organized crime, unlawful dealing in trophies, and possession of government trophies. If convicted they could each face up to 40 years in prison.

“We gathered important intelligence from this operation,” Ngowi says. “We learned more about the important people in the international market and how they carry out their business, including methods of payment to dealers here in Tanzania.”

Several alleged ivory dealers have been arrested in Tanzania by the NTSCIU during the past year. In October the task force arrested Yang Feng Glan, dubbed the Ivory Queen for her alleged leadership of one of Africa’s biggest ivory smuggling rings. The last major seizure in Tanzania happened three years ago, when 1,700 pieces of ivory weighing 5.5 tons were seized in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.

Ngowi believes that many of the tusks seized in this operation came from elephants killed in the Selous Game Reserve, an area once home to the largest population of elephants in East Africa. Last year a government census revealed that from 2009 to 2014 Tanzania lost 60 percent of its elephants to poaching, and during the past decade the number of elephants in the Selous fell from 70,406 to 15,217.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations around the world announced this past week:

MACAWS AND FURS: Hong Kong Police and customs officers confiscated 46 endangered macaws, 24 magpie robins, and 14 boxes of furs as the goods were being loaded onto a speedboat bound for Shenzhen, a city in southeastern China, the South China Morning Post reports. A police source said he believed the macaws, which can be sold for as much as $20,000 on the black market, were imported into Hong Kong legally but were being exported illegally to escape stringent restrictions imposed by mainland authorities.

ELK POACHING: Four men pleaded guilty to poaching a bull elk on the Roan Plateau, in western Colorado, the Denver Post reports. State investigators said they learned of the illegal hunt after one of the men posted a photo online of himself with the animal, which was killed in an area closed to hunting. Two of the men were employees with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

RUNAWAY SUSPECT: South African authorities nabbed a man suspected of poaching rhinos in 2011 and keeping their horns, AllAfricasays. The suspect was arrested in 2015, was later released on bail, and had been on the run ever since. Cops busted him after he withdrew cash from an ATM machine.

TORTOISE TAKER: Police in Mumbai, India, seized three live Indian star tortoises from a woman they say were carrying them in a plastic basket, according to Mid-Day. It’s unclear why the woman allegedly possessed them. Considered vulnerable, Indian star tortoises are prized for the exotic pet trade.
  1. Sophie Tremblay is a freelance journalist based in Arusha, Tanzania. Follow her on Twitter. Willy Lowry is a freelance journalist who covers East Africa. Follow him on Twitter.
  2. Jani Actman reported the roundup of wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations. Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.