A notorious Chinese trafficker nicknamed the “ivory queen” was sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Tanzanian court this week for smuggling hundreds of elephant tusks.
Yang Fenglan, a prominent businesswoman operating a Chinese restaurant in the city of Dar es Salaam, was convicted of running one of Africa’s largest ivory-smuggling rings, trafficking nearly $2.5m worth of tusks from some 400 elephants, according to the BBC.
Two Tanzanian men, Salivius Matembo and Manase Philemon, were also found guilty of leading “an organized criminal gang.” Both have denied the accusations.
Reuters reports that Yang was first charged in October 2016 after smuggling more than 860 pieces of ivory between 2000 and 2004, a haul worth nearly $5.6 million. The businesswoman, who’s lived in Tanzania since the 1970s and once served on the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council, had been under investigation since her 2015 arrest following a “high-speed” car chase with Tanzanian police.
Prosecutors said Yang played a pivotal role as the “key link” between East African poachers and buyers in the Far East, adding that she “intentionally did organize, manage and finance a criminal racket by collecting, transporting or exporting and selling government trophies” weighing a total of 1.889 tons.
The illegal trade, which has been especially harmful to Africa’s elephants, is largely driven by demand from China and East Asian markets where ivory is used in jewelry, ornaments and other trinkets. Back in Africa, the BBC noted that ivory poaching has been attributed to a 20 percent decline in the continent’s elephant population in just the past decade.
Amid mounting pressure form environmental groups, China moved to ban the domestic sale of ivory in 2018.
This week, a judge ordered Yang, who’s fluent in Swahili, and her accomplices to either pay twice the market value of the poached ivory or face another two years in the slammer, Reuters reported. The court also ordered that her property be seized.
Wildlife conservation groups welcomed the sentencing and hailed Yang’s conviction as a step in the right direction.
“The government is taking wildlife trafficking very seriously, and an attack on Tanzania’s wildlife is seen as an attack on Tanzania,” said Krissie Clark, executive director for The PAMS Foundation, a conservation group focused on Tanzania. “Congratulations Tanzania!”
Still, there were those who felt the action didn’t go far enough.
“(It) is not punishment enough for the atrocities she committed, by being responsible for the poaching of thousands of elephants in Tanzania,” Amani Ngusaru, country director for the World Wildlife Fund, told Reuters. “She ran a network that killed thousands of elephants.”