From ‘Ivory Queen’ to jail bird

Nairobi-February 19, 2019:

A court in Tanzania has convicted and sentenced Yang Feng Glan, infamously named ‘The Ivory Queen’ and two of her associates to 15 years in prison. This is welcomed news signaling an end to a 5 year protracted case where Ms. Yang and two Tanzanians were charged with economic crimes for trafficking in more than 706 pieces of elephant tusks in 2014.

The arrest of Yang back in October 2015 shocked many given that the face of an ivory poacher is not a woman in her late sixties.  A lot can be said about the quality of life of a 68 year old Asian woman imprisoned in an African prison. Prison is horrible and for a woman the age of my grandmother would be ridiculously unbearable. She is subject to 20 hour lock in behind bars for 15 years. She has a lot of time to think about her nefarious activities on foreign land but for one second don’t you think this is not deserved.

This sentence, based on a charge of economic crimes, comes in the back drop of Tanzania’s loss of 100,000 elephants in the last decade which has dented its golden goose – wildlife based tourism. This comes in the shadow of the gruesome assassination of conservationist Wayne Lotter and tens of rangers who dedicated their lives to keep poachers and traffickers filthy hands from treasured elephants. She has blood in her hands that this sentence, albeit tough and punitive, won’t ever bring cleanse.

Case proceedings point to her directing mind in an elaborate trafficking operation conducted in Tanzania with tentacles in Asia from the year 2000 to 2014. Records show she bankrolled the sourcing and exportation of wildlife trophies working closely with her associates, Salivius Francis Matembo and Manase Julius Philemon who mopped up ivory trophies from poachers all over Tanzania. These middlemen would contact poachers who ordinarily have no direct link with exporters or end market buyers. Sitting pretty at the top of this entire operation was the ivory queen. From plotting, managing middlemen, buying ivory and exporting to Asia, bribing officials to laundering proceeds of crime.

At the time of her arrest she was the Vice President of the China Africa Business Council – the irony is not lost on her. Her brazen illegal activities point to the increasing audacity of foreigners, especially Chinese nationals, to run grand organized crime networks on African soil mostly without detection, apprehension, arrest or prosecution and arguably with tacit complicity of corrupt law enforcement. What was different about this case against the Ivory Queen was the pressure exerted on Tanzania to clean up its poaching and illegal trafficking reputation. Infamously bundled together with other states as the ‘Gang of Eight’, Tanzania has signaled that its criminal justice system is possibly coming of age and a reform revisit of this infamy is necessary.

I ask Tanzania not to blink with this awesome news of a conviction. Lessons learnt from Kenya point to an ever increasing risk in releasing already convicted traffickers on appeal. Last year, a High Court Judge in Mombasa reversed the conviction and sentence of twenty years imprisonment against Feisal Ali, once on INTERPOL’S most wanted ivory trafficker list, for trafficking in 2512 kilograms of elephant ivory. Two quiet acquittals in high profile cases followed last year and currently cases relating to 20,400 kilograms of elephant ivory in evidence are pending before various courts in Kenya. It is mind boggling how the more evidence you have in these cases the harder it is to prove guilt. There is little confidence in that they all will end up in conviction as shown in “Ivory Queen’s” case.

Currently, INTERPOL’S most wanted list now has six Kenyans adversely listed for various crimes with three involved in ivory trafficking. The most high profile of the three are two brothers, Nicholas & Samuel Jefwa who are masterminds of Kenya’s largest illegal ivory export. They are still on the run five years after the warrants were issued by court. With every dawn there is a dwindling confidence that they will be arrested and eventually brought to justice.

Despite the two countries sharing critical wildlife ecosystems (Maasai Mara – Serengeti and Tsavo – Mkomanzi) and sharing elephants too, which don’t recognize borders, there is a worry that there is an imbalanced and grossly inconsistent law enforcement approach to bringing traffickers to justice. A reasonable trafficker would come to Kenya and fancy their chances with our system with a great hope they will evade justice (forum shopping). For the sake of wildlife, Tanzania and Kenya cannot be seen to speak in different tones when it comes to dealing with traffickers. Kenya can learn a lot from this conviction.

Today, we choose to celebrate this conviction as a critical step forward. A hearty thanks to the law enforcement machinery that arrested the three, indicted, prosecuted and determined this case. They rose to the occasion, despite pressure from corrupt quarters, to do their job and bring the ‘Ivory Queen’ to justice. Kudos  to the various organizations that followed up on this case from arrest to conviction. Their insistence to maintain a presence in court narrowed the public’s attention and enhanced public interest in this case keeping prosecutors, magistrates and investigators honest and accountable.

Now that the “Ivory Queen” is now a convict, it’s about time we took all her personal assets, physical and financial, as proceeds of crime. That money should fund conservation activities and even offer reprieve to the many families of rangers her activities have robbed of consistent bread winners.

When in doubt always remember, this is what justice for wildlife looks like!

The writer Jim Karani is a Legal Affairs Manager at WildlifeDirect