The illegal wildlife trade is a transnational, commodity-based and highly profitable form of organised crime, until recently carrying little risk of detection and prosecution, particularly for the kingpins at the heart of the trade. However the sentencing of the “Ivory Queen” to a lengthy prison sentence and recent record seizures indicate a growing appetite by authorities to act. Katie Perrott is Group Head, FCC Strategic Intelligence at SCB.
Successful conviction and sentencing of the Ivory Queen
Fuelled by Asian demand for ivory, poaching has devastated Tanzania’s once large elephant population; with numbers falling from 110,000 in 2009 to just 43,000 by 2014. Alleged by prosecutors to be a key figure in the illegal trade of Tanzanian ivory, Yang Feng Glan, a 69 year old Chinese woman, and two Tanzanian accomplices (Salivius Francis Matembo and Manase Julius Philemon) were sentenced in February 2019 to 15 years in prison, after being convicted of smuggling 860 elephant tusks worth over USD 5.5 million between 2000-2014. Feng Glan 32 and her accomplices will also be required to serve an additional two years in prison under Tanzania’s Wildlife Protection Act unless they each pay a fine of over USD11 million. The three defendants have appealed the decision.
Prior to her arrest, Feng Glan served as secretary general of the Tanzania-China Africa Business Council and also owned a restaurant in Dar Es Salaam frequented by both the Chinese expat community and locals. It has been alleged that Feng Glan’s ties to the local wealthy elite facilitated her smuggling activities, although no further charges have been brought. Local conservation groups say that factors critical to the successful conviction included Tanzanian President Magufuli’s anti-wildlife crime and corruption drive, the creation of a national multiagency task force working to build a strong prosecution, and the successful use of an intelligence-led investigative approach. In fact, in the past, it has been rare in Tanzania and many other jurisdictions for high-level wildlife traffickers to be successfully convicted or to have had serious sentences levied against them. These wealthy individuals often act with impunity in countries with limited investigative and prosecution resources, high levels of corruption and weak legal frameworks.
It is hoped that the landmark case against Feng Glan marks a turning point in the way trafficking kingpins are investigated, prosecuted and sentenced. The recent record against other high profile cases is poor. For example, only three weeks before Feng Glan’s sentence, a Thai court dismissed the case against Vietnamese national Boonchai Bach, a suspected wildlife trafficking kingpin accused of smuggling rhino horns worth USD1 million to Thailand, after a key witness refused to give evidence. Another high-profile alleged trafficker: Feisal Mohamed Ali (who was previously the most wanted ivory trafficker in the world) successfully appealed his 20 year prison sentence for trafficking 2,152 kilograms of elephant ivory in 2018 in Kenya. Vixay Keosavang (the alleged head of a syndicate suspected of exporting thousands of tigers from Laos to China and Vietnam, along with illegal rhino horn and ivory) remains at liberty despite a USD1 million bounty offered by the US government in 2013; Dawie Groenewald, first arrested in 2010 and accused of heading one of South Africa’s largest rhino poaching and trafficking syndicates has had his trial now postponed until 2021.
Major seizures in Transit hubs and in Destination Countries
2019 shows record seizure rates of wildlife products so far. In January, Hong Kong authorities intercepted a nine-ton shipment of pangolin scales and a thousand elephant tusks shipped from Nigeria and headed to Vietnam. Three months later, they made a five-year record seizure of rhino horn worth USD16.5million. Singapore customs also seized pangolin scale shipments and elephant ivory with an estimated market value of USD52.3million and USD38.1 million respectively in two seizures days apart that month. These were also shipped from Nigeria and intended for Vietnam. This followed earlier successes in February and March, 2019 by Malaysian, Vietnamese and Chinese authorities who respectively seized 33 tons of pangolin meat in two processing facilities, intercepted 9.12 tons of elephant tusks, and seized 7.48 tons of elephant ivory. As well as indicating changing trends in pan-continental transit hubs and the increasing co-ordination and success of customs enforcement activity, these seizures also emphasise the exponentially-growing scale of the illegal wildlife trade and the significance of the financial flows that underpin it.
Pangolin seizures and TCM usage in China
According to research conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), since the start of 2019, there have been six separate seizures, each weighing several tonnes, amounting to an estimated 91,000 individual Pangolin’s with 4 of the 6 consignments destined for either China or Vietnam. The most significant drivers of the global illegal trade are their consumption for meat, jewellery, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The killing of Pangolins is illegal in both China and Vietnam. In China raw Pangolin scales can only be obtained legally at designated hospitals and approved pharmaceutical companies, or must display a government issued label if sold legally in a processed form. The use of processed Pangolin products in TCM traces back to the 16th Century, and are believed to stimulate blood circulation, lactation and decrease inflammation, although no accepted scientific evidence for this exists. Some campaigners suggest a government ban on the use of Pangolin scales in TCM would help, though changes in demand will likely still take time as over 500 years of teachings will be hard to shrug off, and no doubt the black market will continue to supply where demand remains.
The United for Wildlife's Financial Taskforce
The Royal Foundation’s United for Wildlife’s Financial Taskforce was launched in Q4 2018 in order to help target organised crime and the proceeds of the illegal wildlife trade. With now over 30 members, and growing the Taskforce held its second physical meeting in London in May 2019. This coincided with the Transport Taskforce meeting, bringing together both initiatives to leverage knowledge and experience to combat this illicit trade. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, spoke reminding the group that despite recent record seizures (see above) for every container of illegal wildlife product seized, many more get through undetected. Additional speakers included experts such as the PAMS Foundation, a leading NGO based in Tanzania, from Law Enforcement & from the Taskforce’s own Financial Intelligence Group, as well as member initiatives and from the UNODC. For more details about the financial task-force, agreed actions and next steps and how we help safeguard the future: Visit this website, which includes a useful awareness video, and other helpful materials.