Chinese ivory smuggler jailed in Tanzania

A prominent Chinese buisnesswoman, dubbed the 'Ivory Queen', has been sentenced to 15 years in jail this week, after being found guilty of smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks.

Yang Fenglan was accused of operating one of Africa's biggest ivory-smuggling rings, responsible for trafficking $2.5 million (£1.9 million) worth of tusks, thought to be from some 400 elephants.

The 69-year-old grandmother was charged with the smuggling of around 800 pieces of ivory between 2000 and 2014 from Tanzania to the Far East, alongside two Tanzanian men - all of whom denied the charges.

In court documents, prosecutors said Yang “intentionally did organise, manage and finance a criminal racket by collecting, transporting or exporting and selling government trophies” weighing a total of 1.889 tonnes.

Kisutu Court Magistrate Huruma Shaidi sentenced Yang, Salivius Matembo and Manase Philemon, each to 15 years, after they were convicted of leading an organised criminal gang and ordered them to either pay twice the market value of the tusks or face an additional two years in prison.

The verdict, which is the most-high profile conviction of an Asian poaching syndicate kingpin by an African court, was welcomed by environmental campaigners and conservationists, who said it would send a powerful message to other Chinese smugglers.

'It’s hugely significant,' said Tom Milliken, who monitors the illegal trade in ivory for CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. 'These large shipments of ivory moving off the African continent are almost inevitably being moved by Asian transnational criminal syndicates. As her jail sentence pulses through the Chinese community, the prospect of spending that long in an African jail is certainly going to be a deterrent for certain individuals.'

Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the president and founder of Save the Elephants, welcomed the conviction as 'huge', adding: 'It is encouraging to see the government taking a hard stance and it shows that if there is political will things can change.'

Tanzania has been the epicentre of elephant poaching in east Africa for the past decade, where the illicit trade is fuelled by demand from China, Vietnam and other southeast Asian states has devastated one of the continent’s largest elephant populations.

Census figures from global environmental body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says the population of African elephants has fallen to 415,000 over the last 10 years as a result of poaching, and Tanzania’s elephant numbers have fallen from 110,000 back in 2009 to just 43,000 by 2014.

But whilst China has cracked down on smuggling in recent years - a total ban on all trade in ivory products came into effect in January 2018, although this does not include Hong Kong - there is still a lack of awareness, with greater education needed.

Speaking at the time of the ban, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said it was delighted to see the doors of the world's largest ivory market close, and while there was a lot of public support for the ban in China, both China and Africa had an enormous task on their hands in stamping out the illegal trading of ivory.