Do dope-smugglers also peddle ivory?


The Economist

Date Published

When a middle-aged Kenyan called Feisal Mohamed Ali was found guilty in July 2016 of possessing more than two tonnes of ivory and sentenced to 20 years in jail, conservationists welcomed the verdict as a victory for elephant protection. An “ivory kingpin” had received his comeuppance, dealing a powerful blow to those behind a scourge that threatens the survival of Africa’s elephants.

Yet wildlife and drugs investigators in Kenya and America believe that Ali may not be the kingpin of an ivory smuggling gang but merely a lieutenant in a larger, well-established criminal organisation that is smuggling drugs as well as ivory and rhino horn. That these two sorts of criminality may be run by the same organisations is significant. It not only suggests that an illicit trade in heroin from South Asia that goes through east Africa and then onto the rich world is contributing to environmental harm along the way. It also suggests that rich-country police forces, which half-heartedly investigate the illegal trade in animal products because it they see it as a remote problem, might become more interested in tackling it as part of their war against the drugs trade, a problem their taxpayers do care about.

The allegations linking these two sorts of smuggling networks have emerged through a long-running effort by American prosecutors to extradite two brothers from Kenya, Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha. They were arrested by Kenyan police more than two years ago after allegedly handing over 99kg of heroin and 1kg of methamphetamine to people who were in fact working for America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Last month the prosecutors finally got their way, and the brothers and two alleged accomplices arrived in New York on January 31st.

Although the brothers are charged with alleged drug smuggling, sources within the investigation claim that it has also connected them to the smuggling of ivory and rhino horn, and believe that Mr Ali was a link in their bigger network.

DEA Special Agent Thomas Cindric, of the Special Operations Division in Washington, says: “We know the Akasha family is involved with the ivory trade, we have recorded conversations where they talk about ivory. We had undercover meetings where they talked about being involved in ivory. They’re like the mafia in the US, they’re multifaceted. These guys are drug and ivory traffickers. And the smuggling routes for ivory are the same as the smuggling routes for drugs.”

The allegation is supported by a transcript, seen by The Economist, that purports to be of a recorded conversation between Ibrahim and a DEA source that took place in April 2014. “I have ivory here from Botswana, from Mozambique, from all over. I have a lot here and it sells,” Ibrahim allegedly said in April 2014. “I have ivory, rhino horn.” Mr Cindric confirms the authenticity of the recording.

The charges are denied by the brothers’ Kenyan lawyer, Cliff Ombeta, who told The Economist his clients “have never been involved in any kind of dealings in ivory. They have never been arrested or been investigated in any offence relating to ivory. They have never stocked any ivory for themselves or anyone else for any reason whatsoever.” He also denies any business connection between Mr Ali and his clients.

Poaching is a menace not just to Kenya’s elephants, but to all Africa’s. A recently concluded aerial survey found the continental population to have dropped by nearly a third between 2007 and 2014, to around 415,000. For traffickers smuggling multi-tonne shipments of elephant tusks from Africa’s parks and wildernesses to Asian markets, where today they fetch around $1,100 per kilogram, the Kenyan port of Mombasa is the exit point of choice. It coincides with one of the main routes for heroin from Afghanistan to Europe where shipments are unloaded from dhows and cargo ships in Kenya and Tanzania and then broken into smaller packages that are carried by air to Europe.

“Transnational organised crime is a business, and the ultimate goal is money—not ideology or anything else. It doesn’t matter if it is drugs, weapons, ivory, people; it’s just about moving illicit goods for profit,” says Javier Montano, a wildlife-crime expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Nairobi.

DNA tracking of ivory seizures shows that Mombasa, in parallel with its emergence as a heroin-smuggling hub, is also home to one of just three trafficking networks moving elephant tusks out of Africa (the others are located in Entebbe in Uganda, and Lomé in Togo). Prosecutions are commonly for a single seizure but Samuel Wasser, a biologist at University of Washington in Seattle, said this understates the scale and complexity of the illegal trade. A DNA map he devised in the 1990s has linked numerous seizures of more than 1.5 tonnes to the Mombasa network.

Mr Wasser’s work shows that individual ivory shipments are not one-off deals and that the ivory is rarely shipped out of the country from which it is sourced. A parallel investigation by the Satao Project, a company that investigates wildlife crime, has also connected a number of large ivory seizures to organised crime. As evidence emerges that the same organisations use common logistics networks to move both poached products and drugs, investigators are hoping new avenues for prosecuting both crimes may open up. It is “like getting Al Capone for tax evasion”, says one.