How the ‘Ivory Queen’ trial gave Tanzania global pride


Hellen Nachilongo, The Citizen

Date Published

See link for photo. 

DAR ES SALAAM: Tanzania won accolades from international wildlife crime experts on how it handled the case of a 66-year old Chinese businesswoman, Yang Fenglan, nicknamed the “Ivory Queen”, who was given a 15-year jail term for smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks, worth $2.5 million. 

Yang, who was accused of operating one of Africa’s biggest ivory-smuggling rings, was convicted in February this year by a Dar es Salaam court for smuggling around 800 pieces of ivory from Tanzania to the Far East between 2000 and 2014. In the case, two other Tanzanian men were also found guilty of involvement in the ring. 

The handling and the outcome of the high profile case frequently highlighted in Bangkok, Thailand last week where wildlife crime experts held roundtable discussions with journalists. 

Teaming up with the media, were experts from several organisations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol), Offices of attorney generals, natural resource and environmental crime, wild aid and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Speakers cited the “Queen of Ivory” case as an incredible lesson to African and Asian countries in combating wildlife trafficking. “[With the exception of China] No other Asian country has so far won conviction in wildlife cases as Tanzania.

“In most Asian countries, when wildlife criminals are convicted, it is not surprising to find them out of jail after a short period of time,” said the UNODC Regional Coordinator – Southeast Asia and Pacific, Giovaani Broussard. He made the remarks at the Journalists Exchange Program (Jep) between Thailand and Tanzania. Jep is supported by USAID Promoting Tanzania’s Environment, Conservation, and Tourism (Protect) project, Wildlife Asia and is implemented by RTI International and the Journalists Environmental Association of Tanzania (Jet).

Picking up on some lessons from Africa, he said: “…in Kenya, when a person is convicted of wildlife crime, the sentence is life imprisonment, however, the implementation of the law isn’t as good as Tanzania or South Africa.”

According to him, the arrest of the queen of ivory demonstrated Tanzania’s high-level commitment to ending wildlife trafficking compared to other African and Asian countries. The ‘Ivory Queen’ had spread her tentacles and built her networks in Tanzania and beyond. 

Originally from Beijing, Ms Yang first went to Tanzania in the 1970s. Her movements went unnoticed for decades. She was one of the first Chinese students to graduate in Swahili and worked as a translator for Tazara, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway project that China was helping to fund and build. 

She went as far as working on government departments. China Daily reports that after the railway was completed in 1975, Ms Yang returned to Beijing to work in the government’s foreign trade department. It wasn’t until 1998 when she decided to set up business in Tanzania. She had indeed created a strong network by the time her illicit business was discovered that actually, Ms Yang was a major player in a far darker relationship developing between Tanzania and China. 

Anti-poaching campaigners said the move to arrest and jail the ‘Queen of Ivory’ was a turning point in curbing wildlife trafficking because it was a vivid example that high profile individuals could also be netted, contrary to earlier belief that only the low profile or minor players could be arrested. In Tanzania, reports show that ivory poaching caused a 20 per cent decline in the population of African elephants in the last decade. 

The African elephant’s population has fallen to 415,000 – a drop of 110,000 over the last 10 years – due to poaching, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The illicit ivory trade is fuelled by demand from China and East Asia, where ivory is widely used for making jewellery and ornaments. 

The Wildlife Trade and Monitoring Networking (Traffic) senior program officer for wildlife traps Ms Monica Zavagli said corruption was the biggest challenge across every sector. He said some government agencies have failed to act responsibly when they get information or tip-offs about wildlife crime because of corruption. 

She commended Tanzanian of being proactive in fighting corruption and taming wildlife trafficking. “It would be more important to proceed with the investigations in order to see the arrest of those who were working with queen of ivory in Asia,” she said. She noted the strategy to encounter illegal wildlife developed by the Tanzanian government few years ago has been a major weapon the country’s fight against wildlife trafficking. 

In past the five or ten years ago traffickers were using direct routes from source country (African) to consumer countries to export ivory products. Today, traffickers are changing the routes. They export ivory and other related animals using other new routes to bring the product to Asia. 

“We have seen earlier this year, the involvement of Nigeria as an emerging country of export point of wildlife of wildlife trafficked from Africa to Asia,’’ she said. She added that there has been a reduction in using Thailand as other trade and destination point country but the trade has switched to online platforms. So far there been an increase of arrests and seizures because the enforcement capacity are getting stronger both in Africa and Asia but still not enough successful prosecution has been done. The capability to get enough arrest is still a challenge to prosecutors in most countries. Apart from that, she said that Tanzania was still used as a destination point (or an export point) of wildlife trafficking to some other destination. 

Ms Zavagli said traffickers were using the great lakes regions for transporting wildlife products…. “In Tanzania, through the port of Dar es Salaam, we have not seen any seizures made since 2015 but we have seen some seizures in other regions of the country which indicates that Tanzania is used as a consolidation or export point to trade wildlife animals,” she said. 

She noted that one of the biggest challenge they face was to build good collaboration and trust with the government institutions because most the agencies think NGO’s are there to point fingers on them. “We make them understand that we are part the solution and we can work together,” she said. 

Thailand Office of Attorney General, International Affairs Department Prosecutor Teerat Limpayararya said: “…most of the time when you arrest a person you find within a period the criminal been from jail to join the community and sometimes commits a similar offence. He said they have been conducting frequent training to prosecutors who deal with wildlife cases to make them understand that wildlife crime need to be adjudicate just like other cases, enable them realize that it’s not just about animals….Judges, polices and prosecutors need to switch their mindset that this Type of crime is important as other crimes. “In the past I was not much involved in wildlife cases but, when I was engaged in several wildlife forums I realized that animals were more vital therefore, I stopped using the products.”