A wildlife crime charity has smashed a “mafia-type” smuggling ring taking more than £95,000-worth of ivory out of Africa.
A six-day operation by Conservation Justice, part of the EAGLE Network, and local agency partners in Gabon was described as a “significant turning point in the relentless fight against the illegal ivory trade”.
Operatives for the charity, as well the Provincial Directorate of Water and Forestry and the Anti-Poaching Directorate of Gabon’s Moyen-Ogooué province, discovered the ivory hidden in secret compartments in a truck.
The tusks are believed to have come from forest elephants and represent at least nine slaughtered animals.
In total, 19 elephant tusks and four pieces of ivory weighing a total of 120kg were recovered. In China a kilogram of ivory is worth around 1,000 US dollars.
The shipment also held 18 rounds of 458 caliber hunting ammunition which could be used to shoot and kill elephants. More than £1,000 in cash was also discovered.
Approximately seven people were arrested in the operation including several “key players”, according to Luc Mathot, founding director of the NGO Conservation Justice.
He said: “This type of operation is vital and should be repeated to dismantle the few large ivory trafficking networks that have managed to survive in Gabon, where the political will to protect the environment remains strong.
“The forest elephant population is estimated at 95,000 and appears to be stable, making it their last big refuge. But the pressure remains, particularly from Cameroon.”
From Cameroon the ivory is exported out of Africa to countries like China, as well as Europe and the US.
According to Conservation Justice, the smuggling networks provide funds, ammunition and facilitates to transport the ivory from elephants killed by organised poachers, posing a serious threat to the survival of elephants and national security.
Vehicles fitted with secret compartments are used to conceal the ivory and evade controls. More than a dozen people could be involved, with ivory drop-off points spread across various provinces of Gabon.
The charity said “organised mafia-type networks” are prepared to do anything to enrich themselves.
Ofir Drori, founder of the EAGLE network, which is active in a dozen countries including Cameroon and Gabon said: “The illegal wildlife trade is routed in corruption. This is a good example for that of a very criminal network driving elephants to extinction.
“It has already been caught once and rewarded with a ridiculous sentence only to continue their illegal activities undisturbed. One of the main leaders of the network was sentenced in Cameroon to a ridiculously low prison term despite being arrested with more than 600kg of ivory in 2020. And their illegal activities have continued undisturbed.”