Tanzania arrests Africa's most wanted ivory trafficker

Dubbed as the 'Queen of Ivory,' the Chinese businesswoman allegedly employed poachers in Tanzania for 14 years. 

Ben Curtis/AP/File
Adult and baby elephants walk in the dawn light, as the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, is seen in the background. A Chinese woman has been charged in a Tanzanian court with smuggling nearly 1.9 tons of ivory.

A Chinese woman accused of leading one of Africa's biggest ivory-smuggling rings has been arrested and charged.

Yang Feng Glan was arrested early this week by a specialized task force in Tanzania that had closely monitored Ms. Glan for a year as she traveled between Beijing, Uganda, and Tanzania carrying out the illegal ivory trade, Tanzania's daily news website The Citizen reports.

Ms. Yang, who is said to have been an important link between East African poachers and Chinese buyers, was charged on Wednesday alongside two Tanzanian accomplices. 

“Most important trafficker ever busted,” the US-based Elephant Action League tweeted.

Tanzania is known as the epicenter of elephant poaching in Africa; the government recently estimated that 65,721 elephants have died in the country in the last five years. The number of Tanzanian elephants plummeted to 43,330 in 2014 from 110,000 in 2009. In 1961, at the time of Tanzania's independence, the elephant population stood at 350,000.

In the whole of Africa, the elephant population was estimated at 1.3 million in 1979, but the number is now closer to 450,000, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

Investigators allege Yang smuggled and traded 706 elephant tusks weighing nearly 1.9 tons worth $2.5 million between 2000 and May 2014.

Yang's capture is seen as a major breakthrough in this growing crisis that is rapidly pushing populations of African elephants, rhinos, and other species to the brink of extinction.

Despite international campaigns to combat poaching, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory between 2010 and 2012 – approximately one every 15 minutes.

This summer President Obama announced a proposal to tighten controls on the US ivory trade. The proposed rule, if implemented, would result in a near-total ban on buying and selling ivory. Despite existing regulations, the US remains the second-largest market for ivory, behind China. 

In March this year, the Tanzanian government launched an anti-poaching operation dubbed Spidernet that resulted in a string of arrests of wildlife poachers, including one group reportedly based in a church that was involved in coordinating, storing, and transporting ivory and arms.

Yang's case will be closely watched worldwide to see if Tanzania’s judiciary is up to the task and immune to corruption, which has been the key hindrance to having suspects arrested, arraigned, prosecuted, and jailed.

“It’s the news that we all have been waiting for, for years,” commented Andrea Crosta, co-founder of the Elephant Action League. “Finally, a high-profile Chinese trafficker is in jail. Hopefully she can lead us to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials. We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant.”

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