No One Can Seem to Stop the ‘El Chapo’ of Congolese Ivory Smuggling


By John Dyer, VICE News

Date Published

Conservationists are clamoring for restrictions on the worldwide trade in ivory that is driving elephants to the brink of extinction.

Their efforts might be the only way to stop François Ikama, the Congolese ivory smuggler whose record of eluding the authorities echoes that of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the drug lord who has twice escaped from Mexican prisons and remains at large.

“If we do not reduce demand, it will be impossible to contain either elephant poaching or wildlife trafficking,” Andrew Wetzler, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told VICE News. “Enforcement alone can’t do the job.”

Congolese police have arrested Ikama three times in the last seven years — in 2008, 2013, and this past March, according to South Africa’s Daily Maverick. Each time, he has managed to slip out of custody or avoid prosecution.

When police arrested Ikama recently, his son, Marien Ikama — a former member of Congo’s parliament — showed up with an entourage that intimidated the officers, who then let the elder Ikama go, the Daily Maverick reported.

In June, when Ikama appeared in court to face smuggling charges, his case was dismissed on a technicality even though the cops had discovered damning amounts of ivory in his home.

“Plenty of ivory was found,” the online news outlet reported. “The sniffer dogs picked up bits of ivory in every direction — the hallmark of a vertically integrated trafficker buying, transforming and carving of ivory. He remained free.”

Ikama is part of a vast market that is killing the largest land animal on the planet.

Thai customs officers survey a load of confiscated African elephant tusks weighing some 8,800 pounds that were being smuggled via a cargo ship from the Congo in April, 2015. (Photo by Rungroj Yongrit/EPA)

Poachers killed more than 100,000 elephants between 2010 and 2012 — a rate that could lead to the extinction of African forest elephants in the next decade, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The population of elephants in Tanzania has declined by around 60 percent in the last five years, according to government data.

The alarming rate of elephant killings has given rise to a broad campaign to save them.

China has announced measures to reduce the ivory trade. States like New York have enacted prohibitions. Congress is debating the Wildlife Trafficking Enforcement Act, which would “make wildlife trafficking a predicate offense under racketeering and money laundering statutes.” And the White House has been considering various measures that activists like Wetzler hope President Barack Obama will detail at some point during his upcoming trip to Africa this weekend.

“We have been considering — and are very, very close to issuing — a proposed regulation that would substantially eliminate interstate trade in ivory in the United States,” Bob Dreher, the associate director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told Public Radio International.

Some have raised objections to a potential blanket ban on ivory sales. The National Rifle Association, antique dealers, and others are concerned about the government criminalizing law-abiding citizens who happen to own ivory items.

“While the goal of restricting illegal commerce in wildlife is laudable, restricting trade in antique guns — all made of ivory from elephants taken long ago — will do nothing to further current anti-poaching efforts, or to reduce the international illicit ivory trade,” NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker told VICE News.

Whether or not the proposed measures will affect the dealings of smugglers like Ikama is unclear. Activists hope they will shrink the ivory market and slash his bottom line. But he’s part of a web of crime that stretches beyond elephants.

“The issue we have in Congo and other countries in Africa is corruption,” Patricia Sims, co-founder of World Elephant Day, told VICE News. “It’s organized crime. We’re dealing with fundamentally, very big large organized crime syndicates that don’t just deal in illegal wildlife profits but all aspect of illegal trade — drugs, humans, you name it.”