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Yang Fenglan once described herself the “best example of friendship between China and Tanzania” – but more than four decades after first arriving in the African country she faces a 30-year prison sentence there for smuggling tusks from over 350 elephants.
The 66-year-old has the appearance of a frail, elderly lady, and has been depicted in Chinese media as the innocent victim of a witch-hunt carried out by the African country for political reasons.
But in Tanzania – where she has been nicknamed the “Ivory Queen” – Yang is accused of being the head of an international smuggling ring responsible for more than $2.5m (£1.7m) worth of tusks being trafficked from the country to the Far East.
Court documents said that Yang “intentionally did organise, manage and finance a criminal racket by collecting, transporting or exporting and selling government trophies” weighing a total of 1.889 tonnes, Reuters reported.
She is in court this week accused of smuggling 706 pieces of ivory between 2000 and 2004. She denies all charges.
US-based conservation group, Elephant Action League, described Yang as “notorious”.
“It’s the news that we all have been waiting for, for years,” the group’s founder Andrea Crosta said when Yang was charged last October. “We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant.”
Beijing-born Yang was one of the first Chinese graduates to become an expert in the Swahili language when it was being promoted by the Chinese government ahead of a new rail-building project between Tanzania and Zambia Railway in the 1960’s.
She acted as a translator for the project between 1970 and 1975, and established a long affection for the country after meeting her husband during that period.
The couple’s daughter was named “Fei” – a Chinese character which means ‘Africa’.
Having been required to return back to her home country following the completion of the project, Yang’s next opportunity to return to Tanzania came in the 1990’s when many Chinese with language abilities sought opportunities abroad on the back of China’s rapidly expanding global reach.
In 1998 she opened Beijing Great Wall Investment Ltd and a Chinese restaurant in the same building in the consular district of Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam.
“Now I do not count on the restaurant to make money. Instead, I see it as a place where people from China and Tanzania can communicate, get to know more friends and conduct information exchanges,” Yang told the China Daily in 2014, after becoming the secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council.
The Global Times newspaper said Yang was being unfairly targeted by police in Tanzania, quoting associates saying that she was unaware that local employees had been involved with ivory trafficking.
She was being ‘demonised’ by a government seeking to score political points for acting tough ahead of an election, the newspaper said.
However, reports in Africa allege that she had been acting as a link between African poaches and buyers in China for more than a decade before her arrest at the end of a car chase in Dar es Salaam.
The population of East Africa’s elephants shrank from 110,000 in 2009 to little more than 43,000 in 2014, according to a survey released last year.
Experts believe that most illegal ivory is sold in China — where products made from the material are seen as status symbols — with some estimating the country accounts for as much as 70 percent of global demand.
Beijing has made efforts to curb the trade, stepping up prosecutions of smugglers and seizures of ivory at border posts, but campaigners say the measures have not gone far enough.