Global effort busts wildlife smugglers

International cast, including AVA, work to nab suspected kingpin and key players
Zaihan Mohamed Yusof Straits Times 12 Jun 17;

After three years, the suspected kingpin behind the smuggling of wildlife parts out of Africa has been arrested near the Kenya-Uganda border recently.

The international operation started in Singapore.

In March 2014, the authorities here seized a 1-tonne shipment of elephant tusks on its way to Laos.

The Straits Times learnt that the tusks had been moved from Uganda to Kenya before an attempt was made to ship them through Singapore.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) alerted the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, an inter-governmental organisation based in Africa tasked with tackling the illegal wildlife trade. AVA provided the container number and port of departure, among other details.

A pattern began to form after more shipments of elephant tusks were seized in Vietnam and Thailand in 2015. According to Freeland, a Bangkok-based counter- trafficking organisation, 32 tonnes of ivory, originating from East and West African ports, were seized in South-east Asia.


At an estimated US$2,000 (S$2,770) for a kilogram of elephant tusk, the seizures would have had a street value of $86 million.

They all led to one syndicate and Gakou Fodie, a suspected major smuggler involved in several cases, including the shipment of 6 tonnes of pangolin scales to Asia. An international cast of law enforcement and Customs agencies, including AVA and Freeland, went into overdrive.

Arrests were made in Africa last year and early this year, related to the seizures in Thailand and Vietnam. The behind-the-scenes cooperation, which also involved Interpol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, culminated in the arrests of seven key players who were allegedly behind the shipment to Singapore.

And between April and this month, the authorities in Africa moved in on Fodie, arresting him near the Kenya-Uganda border before he was extradited just a few days ago to Tanzania, where the case against him is stronger.

In a telephone interview with The Straits Times, Mr Steven Galster, 55, founder of Freeland, commended AVA officials. "The Singapore officials were some of the first to say 'yes' to (the joint investigation). They did not need any prompting from us. They did that on their own."

Dr Chua Tze Hoong, group director of the Quarantine Inspection Group at AVA, said clamping down on illegal wildlife trafficking requires government agencies and non-governmental organisations to work together.

"Singapore seriously assesses intelligence reports or tip-offs from our partners.

"This has resulted in several seizures such as this case, in which the collaboration between countries and various parties contributed to the success of the operations," he said.

Poaching and smuggling of rhino horns, pangolin scales, wildcat skins and elephant tusks are driving wildlife populations down.

Some wildlife parts are used in traditional medicine while others like elephant tusks, when skilfully carved into decorations, can cost as much as US$300,000 each, said Mr Galster, who has seen high-end works in Beijing, China.

Part of the challenge is to get "transit and consumer" countries to step up.

Mr Galster said: "People are desensitised when they see these (wildlife shipment) seizures and they don't realise that these are the result of serial murder. It's a bunch of animals killed."

However, traffickers are known to be crafty. They would label a consignment of elephant tusks as coffee beans or tea leaves, said Mr Galster.

He added: "They (traffickers) may also change the country of origin by having containers shipped to one place first where they change the Bill of Lading to show the transit country is now country of origin. So a Customs officer in the receiving country would be less suspicious, not knowing the cargo originated in Africa."

In the end, it was the investigators' perseverance and advanced investigation trainingthat proved vital in bringing down the syndicate, said Mr Galster.

The investigators began to see more links to wildlife suppliers after using digital forensics software in their probe. Using raw data, the software analyses and spots trends and patterns.

The suspects arrested included a senior Kenyan Customs official, several shipping agents and high-level traffickers who played a role in smuggling the illegal consignment to Singapore. They are also linked to other wildlife crimes.


By the numbers

A rhinoceros is killed every seven hours, according to Freeland, a counter-trafficking organisation based in Bangkok.

Rhinoceros are prized for their horns and bones as they are used in traditional medicine or for decorative purposes.

Even more frequently, an elephant is killed every hour.

Each year, an estimated 20,000 elephants are killed for their tusks, which can fetch about US$2,000 (S$2,760) per kg in the black market.

Freeland founder Steven Galster told The Straits Times that trading in African elephant tusks is worth US$400 million a year.

A meeting of the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Johannesburg last October reported that roughly 30 per cent of Africa's elephants have disappeared in the last seven years. Its population in 2016 was estimated at 473,000.

But the most threatened creature is the pangolin.

It is the most trafficked mammal, with over one million poached in the past decade.

Under Cites, all commercial trade in pangolins is banned.

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