Congo Cartel Cracked: Elephant ivory poachers arrested after using Thailand as shipping hub


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Four Congolese suspects have been arrested today for alleged roles in trafficking multi-ton shipments of poached elephant tusks from Africa to Laos via Thailand and costing the lives of countless innocent elephants.

According to Bangkok-based, anti-trafficking organization Freeland, the arrests in Africa will disrupt the supply chain that imports illegal elephant ivory from Africa to Asia. In Africa, elephants are being poached at the alarming rate of one every 15 minutes.

The arrests are the culmination of a multi-department, international investigation that involved officials in six countries working together for 16 months.

In the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, two senior government officials and two senior shipping company officers were taken into custody for their roles in the illegal exports of elephant tusks destined for Laos via Thailand.

They are Kapayi Kikumbi Jean, of the Ministry of Agriculture; Onakoy Oleko, of the Ministry of Trade and Industrialization; Tekatala Bazingu, manager of a shipping company; and Kalembu Kamwita Emery Patrice, manager of a different shipping company.

All four suspects have connections to an Africa-based Chinese national believed to be the money behind the ivory-trafficking operation. Officials are still searching for the Chinese man.

On April 20, 2015, Thai Customs announced the country’s largest seizure of illegal elephant tusks to date. The shipment, labeled as “beans,” contained 739 tusks that had been shipped from Africa and were headed to Laos.

No arrests have been made in Thailand in connection with this case.  

Late last year, the Bangkok-based Freeland’s special investigations team trained African officers to follow document trails and money back to Africa to find out who organized and paid for the ivory exports that were seized in Thailand.  

Given the similarities to other large parcels of elephant tusks discovered by Vietnamese, Singaporean, and Chinese authorities in the past 18 months, the suspects apprehended in Africa may be part of a wider trafficking ring linked to the ongoing slaughter of elephants on that continent.

It may be a big win for the anti-ivory movement and anti-trafficking initiatives but, representatives of Freeland note, the ivory syndicates are resilient.

Experts calculate that more than 30,000 elephants each year, or one every 15 minutes, is poached for its tusks in Africa. Ivory tusk can fetch more than USD2,000 (THB70,000) per kilo, but a professional carver can increase the value of a piece to as much as USD100,000 (THB3.5 million).

“Any strategy to save African elephants has to also involve long-term demand reduction campaigns, to send a signal to consumers and black marketeers that ivory is a bad investment,” said Steven Galster, of Freeland. “The problem is, elephants can’t survive on a long-term strategy alone.”

The four accused will face charges in court in Kinshasa on Monday for conspiracy and trafficking in illegal wildlife.