‘Ivory Queen’ arrest sends powerful signal in epicenter of Africa’s illegal ivory trade


Willy Lowry and Sophie Tremblay, Fusion

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TANZANIA– Officers surrounded the house in residential Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, for seven hours before their suspect, a small, 66-year-old Chinese woman, jumped into her car and sped off into the busy coastal city. Yang Feng Glan managed to evade officers for several minutes, leading them on a short car chase, but officials with a specialized anti-poaching task force eventually closed in on her with their vehicles, and she was soon caught, according to a source familiar with the event.

Glan, who has been dubbed the “Queen of Ivory”, has been charged withsmuggling 706 elephant tusks that authorities say are worth about $2.5 million, but a source close to the case who asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information, claimed she is responsible for the deaths of at least 6,000 elephants.

“It’s the biggest arrest in the history of the country and possibly Africa,” he said.

China is known to be the largest source of ivory demand in the world, much of it which is eventually turned into ornamental carvings. The source said Glan had become one of the major gateways in exporting ivory from Africa to China.

Tanzanian officials said Glan came to Tanzania in 1975 as a translator for a Chinese company that was building a railroad linking the port of Dar es Salaam to Zambia. She was one of the first Chinese people to learn fluent Swahili. According to an interview she gave to the China Daily newspaper last year, and she quickly fell in love with the country. She even named her daughter Fei, the Mandarin character for Africa.

In 1998, she opened a restaurant in Dar Es Salaam that became popular with both the Chinese expat community and wealthy locals. She used the restaurant and another property she owned as a weigh-station, hiding the ivory in food orders. Officials said it was her mastery of the language and her connections in the upper echelons of society that helped her to smuggle the ivory from Tanzania to China.

Glan on the radar for a year

Glan’s arrest is the culmination of a year long investigation by Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU), a government run agency that currently relies on private funding provided by the PAMS Foundation, a local conservation group.

Investigators first came across her name in June, 2014 when they arrested one of her lieutenants with ivory near one of the country’s national parks.

“That’s when we got our break,” the source said. “After busting other [ivory] syndicate leaders, Glan’s name kept coming out in common in the different interrogations.”

With much of her poaching network dismantled and authorities closing in on her, Glan fled Tanzania for Uganda. Glan was careful, only turning on her cellphone for a few minutes a day. But in September, she returned to Tanzania to visit her granddaughter.

“One day she wasn’t careful and we had her,” said the source.

The authors have been unable to contact Glan directly, but repeated calls to the Chinese embassy in Dar es Salaam have gone unanswered. According to Reuters, Glan’s Lawyer says she’s innocent and will fight the charges.

Nearly 900 poachers arrested

In the past, it has been rare to see poaching ringleaders, particularly a wealthy Chinese businesswoman, arrested and charged in Tanzania. But since the creation of the NTSCIU task force, conservationists say this has changed.

At least eight Chinese nationals have been arrested by the task force in recent weeks. One woman, Li Ling Ling, was arrested in late September and is being charged alongside four Tanzanian airport officials for facilitating the smuggling of ivory from Tanzania to Switzerland.

The special anti-poaching task force, part of NTSCIU, was given a grant of nearly $1 million last year to purchase sophisticated software and carry out large-scale intelligence-led operations. The PAMS Foundation, in partnership with an ivory detecting canine unit, Team Rokka, and security firm Askari Maritime Logistics, have helped equip and technically and logistically support, members of the task force.

“We’re extremely proud to work with the unit,” said Wayne Lotter, PAMS director. “This is a program with real integrity and the guys are doing a really good job.”

Lotter said within the last year, the unit has identified 1,500 suspects and has arrested 870 poachers and illegal ivory traders. The unit’s work has resulted in the prosecution of more than 240 people.

“Glan’s arrest is just the tip of the iceberg, we’re talking about other syndicate leaders who have been handed 20 to 40 year convictions this year,” he said. “Lots of people have been taken down within the last year and they’re not nobodies.”

Officials have also seized 300 firearms and 1771 elephant tusks, according to Lotter.

‘Tide is turning’ for elephant poaching

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) there were more than 1.3 million African elephants in 1979, now there maybe as few as 400,000.

The agency has called Tanzania the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade. Recent data from a government-led elephant census suggests elephant numbers have dropped from 110,000 in 2009 to a little over 43,000.

EIA campaigns director Julian Newman played a pivotal role in the Vanishing Point report, a damning expose on the state of Tanzania’s poaching crisis. He called the string of arrests an important step in the fight against poaching.

“I think this approach is just what’s needed in Tanzania,” Newman said. “If you start taking some of these people out of the business by either arresting them or prosecuting them, they are obviously quite difficult to replace so you’ve disrupted quite an important syndicate.”

Newman estimates there are only three or four other major syndicates of this level operating in the country.

Newman is also encouraged by the recent deal between China and the United States to ban nearly all commercial ivory sales in both countries. China’s State Forestry Administration also recently imposed a one-year ban on African ivory hunting trophy imports. Newman said until the ban is made permanent the killing of elephants for ivory will continue.

According to PAMS, the shakedown by the NTSCIU is already having an impact in the bush.

“The rangers out patrolling in the field are seeing less carcasses,” Lotter said. “I have no doubt that there’s been thousands of elephants saved in this country because of this.”

He estimates it’s reduced the killing of elephants in Tanzania by 50% or more this year.

“The ivory war is still a long way from over,” Lotter said. “But we have no doubt, the tide is turning.”