Togo Makes Second Record Ivory Seizure

A Vietnamese man, left rear, and his two Togolese accomplices, rear center, are paraded by Togo troops to the media in the city of Lome, Togo, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014
Police in Togo say they have arrested three men after discovering nearly two tons of ivory in a container marked for shipping to Vietnam. (AP Photo/Erick Kaglan)

Last week police in Togo arrested three men and seized the largest shipment of illegal ivory in West African history, breaking a record for ivory seizures from that region set just six days earlier.

Officials seized 2.1 tons of ivory on January 29; they had seized 1.7 tons on January 23.

According to officials, both shipments were containers intended for Vietnam and were tied to a 44-year-old Vietnamese national named Dinh Huu Khao who operates an import-export business in Lomé. Two Togolese nationals were also arrested.

Have Port Will Smuggle

Togo has quickly emerged as an ivory-trafficking hub in Africa despite the fact that the country has few elephants of its own. Why?

Ivory traffickers operating in Africa need two things to be successful: elephants and a way out.

Togo has fewer than 200 elephants, but it has something many countries with elephants lack: a major deep-sea port at Lomé.

In the past 14 months Togo has been implicated in some of the world’s largest ivory seizures. In December 2012 Malaysian customs officials seized more than six tons of ivory hidden inside ingeniously designed caskets made to look like planks of stacked mahogany boards. The shipment had originated in Togo and was headed for China.

In July 2013 Hong Kong officials intercepted a 2.2 ton shipment of raw ivory hidden inside a shipment of wooden planks that had traveled from Togo via Morocco, also intended for China.

In August, officials seized about 700 kilograms (1,875 pounds) of ivory from prominent Lomé-based ivory trader Emile N’Bouke, who has yet to be tried.

Consistent Modus Operandi

Last week’s shipping container was declared to contain cashew nuts, but upon inspection officials discovered illegal timber and beneath that 24 sacks of elephant tusks.

Timber is commonly used as cover for ivory, even though the wood itself is often illegal.

Also recovered were 22.5 kilograms (60 pounds) of pangolin scales, used for traditional Asian medicine. The pangolin, an anteater-like mammal, is also prized for its meat and skin. Its Asian relative has been decimated by poachers, leading the illegal trade to spread, like blood, to Africa.

In all, seizures of ivory exiting Togo in the past 14 months represent more than 1,200 dead elephants. The worst elephant killing in Africa is taking place in central African countries as well as in West Africa, including Gabon, where poaching is described as “out of control.” Togo’s deepwater port offers poachers a way to get their illicit goods to market, and traffickers are apparently crossing multiple borders to get their ivory to Lomé.

Penalties for trafficking via Togo are significant. Earlier this month Togolese courts convicted a shipping agent connected to the 2012 Malaysian ivory seizure, sentencing him to 24 months in prison and imposing a fine of four million dollars.

Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist and author who has spent years focused on environmental crimes. A Fulbright Scholar, he attended Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University Graduate School, University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Tokyo Law School. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., including in the Executive Office of the President. Mr. Christy is the author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers. In researching that book, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. His article, "The Kingpin", exposing wildlife trader Anson Wong, appeared in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. Visit his website for updates about his work.Photo by John Heminway

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