A slight, bespectacled 66-year-old Chinese woman was arrested in Tanzania last week for allegedly leading a crime ring that smuggled at least 706 elephant tusks worth about $2.5 million.
Yang Feng Glan, who has lived in Africa since the 1970s, is being called the ‘Queen of Ivory’ and one of the most notorious ivory traffickers arrested in East Africa in a decade. She is accused of having used her well-known restaurant in Tanzania’s capital city of Dar es Salaam and her post as secretary-general of the country’s China-Africa Business Council to organize a massive underground ivory trade.
Ms. Yang’s alleged activities have helped the East African nation, a hotbed of criminal ivory activity, to lose up to 70 percent of its elephants in the last decade to illegal poaching, according to a November 2014 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit based in London.
"Across Africa, they keep arresting small fish here and there," Andrea Costa, a spokeswoman for the Elephant Action League, a US nonprofit group that fights crime against wildlife, told CNN.
"They have finally caught a big fish,” she said.
Carvings made from the ivory of poached elephant tusks is highly prized among China’s growing middle class, fueling what the Environmental Investigation Agency calls “a devastating poaching crisis” in Tanzania.
According to the agency’s review of ivory seizure data, China is by far the largest single destination for illicit ivory, and if “this is allowed to continue at the current rate, only a few significant elephant populations will remain in Africa in the next decade,” the organization says in its report.
The arrest is a positive sign that Tanzania might finally be stepping up its anti-poaching efforts, which have been criticized from around the world for being too lax.
“It’s the news that we have all been waiting for, for years,” Ms. Costa told The Guardian. “Finally, a high-profile Chinese trafficker is in jail. Hopefully, she can lead us to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials,” she added.
Yang has been under investigation for the past year by a new wildlife trafficking unit of the Tanzanian National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit, reports CNN.
Tanzanian officials surrounded Yang’s house last week for seven hours in an effort to arrest her. But she sneaked out, jumped in her car, and led officials on a car chase through the city, reported The Washington Post. Officials eventually captured and arrested her and many of her suppliers, Tanzanian authorities told CNN.
She’s facing a maximum sentence of 20 to 30 years in prison, Costa told the Guardian.
Ms. Yang moved to Africa in the 1970s, when China started building a railway in Tanzania. She was one of the first Chinese people to learn Swahili and become a translator. Through the years, Yang became a successful and well-connected businesswoman, founding an investment firm, a popular restaurant – which allegedly smuggled ivory through food shipments – and serving as a business liaison between China and Tanzania.
But in the last decade, and possibly much longer, authorities say she was smuggling millions of dollars worth of ivory to her contacts in China, and according to the Post, event funding poachers to kill elephants in protected areas.
Anti-poaching advocates say that countries importing the largest amounts of ivory are responsible for putting an end to the slaughter of about 30,000 African elephants a year.
The Chinese government has started to respond.
In September, President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama made a historical move, promising to to ban ivory imports and exports of ivory.