Gabon Says It Busted a Major Ivory Smuggling Network


Dionne Searcey, The New York Times

Date Published

See link for photo.

DAKAR, SENEGAL: Officials in Gabon say they have dismantled the Central African nation’s largest ivory trafficking network, which last year alone was responsible for trading, selling and shipping six tons of ivory across the continent.

A two-year investigation, called Operation Nzok — which means elephant in a local language — resulted in the arrests of a Chadian man, Abdoulaye Mohamoud Ibrahim, and eight others, including his wife and other family members.

Officials said their analysis of the suspects’ laptops and cellphones had revealed links to Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that has been waging war in northern Nigeria and neighboring areas for nearly nine years.

Gabon has the largest population of forest elephants in the world. Also home to gorillas, mandrills and hippos, it is one of the lushest nations on the planet — 80 percent of its land mass is forest.

The country’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, has faced widespread allegations of election fraud from both opponents and outside observers, and his family has ruled the nation for decades. But Mr. Bongo is heralded by conservationists for his work to protect animals and marine life.

He has banned commercial fishing off coastal waters to establish one of the continent’s largest protected marine areas, expanded the national parks agency and regularly attends international climate and conservation conferences.

“We are fighting a war against the illegal trafficking of our natural resources,” Mr. Bongo said in a statement. “This war we must win at the risk of losing control of our country and our destiny.”

The government announced the results of its investigation on Monday night with a documentary on a local television station; the arrests had been made in November.

Officials said the ivory network stretched across Gabon’s nine provinces, and across its borders. Besides ivory, the network is also suspected of smuggling 48 large hocks, or elephant legs. The items were transported to Cameroon or to West African countries.

A news release from the president’s office said that a financier of the network had also been arrested after a several-day pursuit. The suspects were charged with organized crime and ivory trafficking.

Poachers have been a persistent problem in the region. In the past decade, the elephant population in the Gabon region has fallen to as low as 35,000, from around 60,000.