2 ivory smugglers captured in international operation, according to the United States

A two-year international undercover operation last week resulted in the arrest of two Congolese men accused of trafficking illegal wildl...


A two-year international undercover operation last week resulted in the arrest of two Congolese men accused of trafficking illegal wildlife into the United States, as well as the seizure worth 3.5 million dollars worth of elephant ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the justice ministry and court documents.

Starting in the summer of 2020, the two men, Herdade Lokua, 23, and Jospin Mujangi, 31, sent several packages by commercial airmail to Seattle containing 54 pounds of ivory and rhino horn at the cost of more. of $ 30,000, attorneys said Monday in a statement.

Mr. Lokua and Mr. Mujangi, both from Kinshasa, then proposed an ambitious deal to smuggle three tons of wildlife from Africa to Seattle in a shipping container, the statement said. After fleeing to Washington state to negotiate the potential sale, they were captured by law enforcement and arrested on November 3 in Edmonds, Washington.

The joint operation was led by the Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Seattle, the United States Embassy in Kinshasa and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“These criminal organizations don’t care about life, only profit,” said Robert Hammer, a special agent overseeing Department of Homeland Security investigations in the Pacific Northwest. “Unfortunately, when we are dealing with a species that has a finite amount, you can only make it so ‘rare’ before it goes extinct.”

African elephants, pangolins and white rhinos are internationally protected species threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Elephants, in particular, are among the most endangered animals in the world. Although there are only around 400,000 elephants in Africa today, experts estimate that millions of elephants roamed the continent a century ago.

To peddle their illegal wares, Mr. Lokua and Mr. Mujangi used encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate with an anonymous middleman who helped coordinate shipments and payments between defendants and law enforcement. American infiltrators, according to court documents.

They discussed creative ways to ensure the safe passage of contraband, such as spray painting ivory to resemble rare ebony wood, concealing tusks in carved wooden masks, and bribing. local Congolese officials, according to the indictment. To escape detection, the men demanded payments in installments sent to various accounts, including one at a Chinese bank.

After their arrest, they were indicted by a federal grand jury with money laundering, conspiracy, smuggling and violating national wildlife trafficking regulations. The federal trial is expected to begin in January. They face up to 25 years in prison.

The two men were captured with the help of DNA sampling from previously seized ivory booty, which experts at the University of Washington used to identify the region where the poached elephants came from, and then link the seizures to specific criminal organizations. According to Sam Wasser, co-executive director of the university’s Center for Environmental Forensic Science, tusks seized from an elephant but smuggled separately can be connected and then linked to the crime syndicate that exports them.

“Individual crises in themselves are kind of a drop in the ocean, but they are a wealth of information that can help us tackle the bigger problem,” said Dr Wasser. “The ultimate goal is to prevent ivory from entering in transit.”

The ability to move huge amounts of ivory and other contraband in tonnes is a sign of a transnational criminal organization, he added, estimating that one tonne of ivory is equivalent to around 90 elephants. dead.

Sea freight makes it difficult to trace and intercept illegal goods. What authorities manage to find is only a fraction of what has been successfully smuggled out of Africa in sea containers, Dr Wasser said.

In his World Wildlife Crime Report 2020, the United Nations estimated that from 2016 to 2018, annual revenues from ivory trafficking were around $ 400 million, and $ 230 million from rhino horns.

Raw ivory in Asia sells for around $ 300 a pound, according to a investigation conducted last year by the Wildlife Justice Commission.

The international ivory trade has been banned for three decades and some countries have taken further steps to restrict sales. A 2016 study The use of carbon dating of more than 200 tusks from seizures in nine countries has suggested that the illegal ivory comes from recently poached elephants, instead of being stolen from aging stocks held by various countries.

“We found that most of the ivory was less than three years old,” Kevin Uno, paleoecologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said Friday. “This is bad news for elephants and good news for governments because they are there to protect their stocks.”

In 2016, the United States established strong restrictions on commercial sales of ivory products both in and out of the state, representing a significant almost total ban, with a few exceptions for items such as centuries-old antiques. A handful of states, including New York, California, and Washington, also ban ivory sales in the state.

In 2017, China banned the ivory trade, but the country remains one of the largest smuggling markets for wildlife, including ivory and pangolin scales, according to the UN.

Recent seizures indicate that traffickers are transporting the two products together, Dr Wasser said, adding that the drastic increase in pangolin poaching is a “time bomb”.

The international trade in pangolins was closed in 2017. Pangolins are considered to be the most trafficked mammals worldwide. From 2014 to 2018, seizures of pangolin scales increased tenfold, according to the 2020 UN report.

The decreasing number of endangered wildlife only serves to drive up prices and increase profits for illegal crimes, Hammer said, adding that extinction of vulnerable species could potentially lead to the legalization of the trade.

“Money is the cause, unfortunately, and animals are victims of greed,” he said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 2 ivory smugglers captured in international operation, according to the United States
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