Trial of alleged elephant ivory poaching boss brings hope to conservationists

Agence France-Presse

Kenyan Feisal Mohamed Ali is allegedly the ringleader of an ivory smuggling gang. As he faces a court to answer the charges against him, friends of the elephants hope the case will shine a light on the shadowy world of international ivory smuggling

Agence France-Presse |

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A broken-up elephant skeleton minus its tusks is pictured in Kora National Park on January 29, 2013.

Shortly before 11am on the last Saturday in May, a loaded Mitsubishi truck pulled into the Fuji Motors East Africa car dealership in an industrial neighbourhood on the northern edge of MombasaThe truck’s cargo was not “household equipment” as declared, but 228 elephant tusks and 74 ivory pieces weighing a total of 2,152 kilograms.

When Kenyan police officers raided the car lot five days later, they refused a bribe of five million shillings (US$55,000), seized the ivory and arrested two men. The bust was one of the biggest in the country’s history but the suspected mastermind, Feisal Mohamed Ali, aged 46, had escaped.

Ali was “alleged to be the ringleader of an ivory smuggling ring in Kenya” according to Interpol, and in November the international police organisation listed him among the world’s nine “most wanted environmental criminals”.

A month later Ali was arrested in neighbouring Tanzania, taken to Kenya and charged with illegally dealing in wildlife trophies. 

It is rare for an alleged ivory boss to be caught, and activists hope Ali’s trial will shine a light on the shadowy supply chain that funnels ivory from Africa to Asian markets.

Looking for the kingpin

A kingpin is the person in charge of something - usually against the law. “People who get apprehended are mainly the foot soldiers, the poachers or foreign middlemen,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the L/ondon-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently exposed just how much ivory is being smuggled out of Tanzania.

“There hasn’t been a single kingpin prosecuted,” she said.

The poachers commonly targeted by police are paid around US$100 per kilo for ivory at source, but they know almost nothing of big system which takes the ivory overseas. They are just small, replaceable parts in the big machine.

Experts say international criminal gangs control the trade, pushing Africa’s elephants towards extinction. A joint UN Environment Programme and Interpol study in 2013 said that up to 25,000 African elephants are killed each year to feed an illegal trade worth up to US$188 million.

Mafia-like organisations

“Forget about the poachers, this is organised crime,” said Ofir Drori, corruption investigator and founding director of Eagle Wildlife Law Enforcement. “It’s not an African problem, the trade is international.”

The supply end of the global ivory pipeline begins in the nature reserves of East and Central Africa and ends at the Indian Ocean ports of Kenya and Tanzania, from where shipping containers with hidden cargoes of ivory are exported to Asia.

DNA tests on large ivory seizures over the last five years have shown the vast majority comes from two areas: Tanzania’s Selous Reserve and Central Africa’s Congo Basin rainforest. Almost all of it ends up in large, consolidated stockpiles at the ports of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar.

“There’s been a substantial shift in the nature of the people involved in the ivory trade,” said Varun Vira, chief of analysis at C4ADS, who has investigated the criminal syndicates involved.

The modern trade is run mostly by a small number of mafia-like organisations that are able to pay hunters and drivers. The hunters and drivers are able to do their grim jobs because the gangs bribe park rangers, police officers, customs officials, shipping agents and freight forwarders as well as detectives and even judges to solve court cases if things go wrong.

Right to the top

Influential politicians are also paid to “oil the wheels,” as one conservationist put it, and to give the syndicates high-level protection.

Working in close partnership, Asian and African criminal gangs control the entire supply chain from source to market. The gangs are becoming more integrated with Asian criminals living and working in Africa where they can maintain close control over operations and “nest” their criminal businesses within legal import-export companies.

Price said the Chinese bosses she has investigated in Africa worked hard to not seem to be too involved in the crimes. “They never really got their hands dirty. They paid others to do the work,” she said.

Low risk business

Bribery and corruption make it easy for ivory to flow from Africa in 20 or 40-foot containers and hidden among legally exported products such as nuts, garlic, sea shells and dried fish, or behind false walls and floors.

Adam Roberts, chief executive of Born Free USA wildlife charity, says there had been this idea that ivory poaching was somewhat just being done on a small-scale by local people, but the level of sophistication is greater than we ever thought.

The growing size of seizures, often more than 500 kilograms at a time, shows the involvement of highly organised criminal networks able to move huge quantities at a time, says Traffic, the organisation that monitors the international trade.

Worthwhile risk

Ivory is worth more than US$2,100 per kilo at market but people are seldom arrested and even less often convicted of any crimes. If they are convicted the penalties are usually low, so there is no big risk to the criminals. “The profits make it worth doing even if you get caught,” said Roberts.

When large seizures are made arrests and convictions rarely follow. A recent five-year study of wildlife cases before Kenyan courts found that only seven per cent of those convicted of offences against elephants and rhinos actually went to prison, despite the crimes carrying a maximum 10-year sentence.

 “It’s a miracle for anyone arrested in Kenya with ivory to be jailed,” said Drori who co-authored the report for charity Wildlife Direct.

 As Ali’s trial gets underway conservationists hope a successful conviction will lay bare the workings of the international syndicates and send a warning to others involved in the illegal trade. “If Ali is what everybody thinks he is then this is a signal flare,” said Vira.

Find out about Hong Kong's role in this deadly trade

Find out how scientist Joyce Poole thinks her research can help the elephants

For facts and figures on the trade, click here