HOW TO TRAP ELE­PHANT POACH­ERS WITH THEIR OWN TECH­NOL­OGY

A crack Tan­za­nian crime unit has turned the ta­bles on the il­le­gal ivory trade by go­ing back to ba­sics and us­ing good old de­tec­tive work

Bangkok Post - - ENVIRONMENT - By Drazen Jor­gic

One day last Oc­to­ber, agents from a crack Tan­za­nian crime unit raced past Dar es Salaam’s Palm Beach Ho­tel in pur­suit of the sus­pected leader of a global ele­phant poach­ing ring. The chase was the re­sult of new break­throughs in Tan­za­nia’s fight against an in­creas­ingly ra­pa­cious poach­ing trade, which has felled 60% of the coun­try’s ele­phant pop­u­la­tion in the past five years.

The agents’ tar­get that day was Yang Feng Glan, a 66-year-old Chi­nese na­tional dubbed the “Ivory Queen”, who is ac­cused of run­ning a smug­gling em­pire stretch­ing from the game parks of Tan­za­nia to the clan­des­tine ivory mar­kets of Asia.

Her ar­rest was the cul­mi­na­tion of more than a year’s work and re­lied in large part on the novel use of old crime fight­ing meth­ods at Tan­za­nia’s Na­tional and Transna­tional Se­ri­ous Crimes In­ves­ti­ga­tion Unit (NTSCIU). Helped by a US$1.5 mil­lion (about 52.9 mil­lion baht) do­na­tion from an Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist, the se­ri­ous crimes squad has started to tackle poach­ing us­ing the lessons it learned hunt­ing al-Qaeda in the years af­ter the group bombed two US em­bassies in East Africa in 1998.

A Tan­za­nian court in Oc­to­ber charged Ms Yang with head­ing a crim­i­nal net­work re­spon­si­ble for smug­gling 706 pieces of ivory worth 5.44 bil­lion Tan­za­nian shillings (about 88.5 mil­lion baht) be­tween 2000 and 2014. Pros­e­cu­tors say Ms Yang or­gan­ised, man­aged and fi­nanced a crim­i­nal racket in ivory to­talling 1.9 tonnes.

Ms Yang, who is now in jail, could not be reached for com­ment. But her lawyer, Ne­hemia Mkoko, says she is in­no­cent of all charges.

The new tech­niques fol­low work done in neigh­bour­ing Kenya, where poach­ing rates have nose­dived. In both coun­tries the po­lice have started con­cen­trat­ing on the poach­ers’ own tech­nol­ogy — guns and phones — and us­ing it against them. By com­bin­ing that with old­fash­ioned de­tec­tive work, they have cap­tured more sus­pects.

“From just one ar­rest, you can open up the syn­di­cate, and go up the lad­der from grass­roots to bro­kers, to deal­ers and trans­porters ... all the way up to in­ter­na­tional traf­fick­ers,” said one agent from the squad. The his­tory of a sus­pect’s gun, the phone calls he or she makes and the money they move cre­ate a trail of ev­i­dence.

Tan­za­nia has been hit hard by a global spike in poach­ing over the past decade. Its ele­phant pop­u­la­tion has dropped to about 43,000 in 2014 from 109,000 in 2009. In­ter­pol has said a “sig­nif­i­cant por­tion” of ivory reach­ing in­ter­na­tional mar­kets orig­i­nated from ele­phant herds in Tan­za­nia.

The re­gion has also be­come a vi­tal part of the African “Smack Track”, a smug­gling route for Afghan heroin bound for Europe; Western di­plo­mats see a grow­ing over­lap be­tween ivory smug­glers and nar­cotics traf­fick­ers.

“They are all in­ter­linked. Drugs traf­fick­ers in East Africa use the same peo­ple that weapons smug­glers use and that the ivory smug­glers use,” said one Nairobi-based agent from the US Drugs En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion (DEA).

SWAHILI SPEAKER

The cap­ture of Yang Feng Yang started with a tip-off in 2014.

In the baobab-stud­ded hills of the Rua­haRungwa ecosys­tem, where the ele­phant pop­u­la­tion plum­meted from 20,000 to 8,000 be­tween 2013 and 2014, lo­cal in­for­mants pointed crime squad agents to­wards Manase Phile­mon, a sus­pected Tan­za­nian ivory dealer who was barely lit­er­ate but could mys­te­ri­ously speak Chi­nese.

Un­der in­ter­ro­ga­tion, Mr Phile­mon fin­gered Ms Yang, who po­lice be­lieve taught him Man­darin. “Manase worked so closely with this woman for a long time,” the NTSCIU agent said.

Ms Yang’s ties to Tan­za­nia spanned four decades. She stud­ied Swahili at a Chi­nese univer­sity and moved to the coun­try in the 1970s to work as a trans­la­tor for Chi­nese en­gi­neers build­ing a rail­way line to Zam­bia, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, po­lice sources and an in­ter­view she con­ducted with the China Daily news­pa­per.

In the 1990s she re­turned to Tan­za­nia and opened a pop­u­lar Chi­nese restau­rant in Dar es Salaam. She was also the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Tan­za­nia China-Africa Busi­ness Coun­cil. Af­ter Mr Phile­mon’s tip-off, she be­came the NTSCIU’s top tar­get.

‘FOL­LOW THE GUN’

But the anti-poach­ing team had prob­lems. Many of the NTSCIU’s agents were trained by Western spy agen­cies in the wake of the US em­bassy bomb­ing in Tan­za­nia, and their main task was to counter the threat from home-grown Is­lamists. There was not enough cash or man­power to act against poach­ing and the unit did not op­er­ate coun­try­wide.

At this point the not-for-profit PAMS Foun­da­tion be­came in­volved. Its leader Wayne Lot­ter sought help from David Bon­der­man, an Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire who made a for­tune in pri­vate equity and had The Rolling Stones play at his 60th birth­day bash.

Mr Bon­der­man’s Wild­cat Foun­da­tion do­nated about $1.5 mil­lion, and the NTSCIU anti-poach­ing team started re­cruit­ing trusted peo­ple from the Tan­za­nia In­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, po­lice, army, im­mi­gra­tion, ju­di­ciary and the na­tional wildlife ser­vice.

“I be­lieve [the NTSCIU] pro­vides a model of how se­ri­ous en­force­ment against wildlife poach­ing and traf­fick­ing can be ac­com­plished if a coun­try’s lead­er­ship has the political will to make it hap­pen,” said Wild­cat Foun­da­tion di­rec­tor Rodger Sch­lick­eisen.

By the time of Ms Yang’s ar­rest, about 60 peo­ple were work­ing on the anti-poach­ing team out of 200 or so NTSCIU agents. They set about build­ing net­works of in­for­mants, and built a strat­egy.

They called it “fol­low the gun, save the ele­phant”.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter a sus­pect is cap­tured, the agents fo­cus on the sus­pect’s weapon. Trac­ing how the poacher ob­tained that gun leads to the per­son one level above in the syn­di­cate and points in the di­rec­tion of a team. Mr Phile­mon helped here. “He gave us the cream of the deal­ers,” said the agent.

But just as they started build­ing a case against Ms Yang, she van­ished. In June 2014 a Tan­za­nian court charged Mr Phile­mon with traf­fick­ing ivory and Ms Yang fled to Uganda, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­iar with the case. Mr Phile­mon has not en­tered a plea and could not be reached the com­ment.

FOL­LOW THE MO­BILE MONEY

More than a year later, her phone re­vealed where she was.

The NTSCIU is able to pull up poach­ers’ phone num­bers and call his­to­ries, said one se­cu­rity ex­pert who works closely with the squad. Com­puter soft­ware is used to de­lin­eate links be­tween on-the-ground poach­ers, deal­ers and transna­tional crim­i­nal gangs.

A server flags to NTSCIU mo­bile phone num­bers when they be­come ac­tive, but does not record calls. “The ma­chine is on 24 hours,” said the ex­pert.

Mo­bile phones also help agents fol­low the money. Many Africans send and re­ceive money via their phones. That means agents who mon­i­tor phone calls can also track pay­ments, help­ing to build up a pic­ture of who is in­volved.

“The mo­bile phones tech­nol­ogy has come in very handy,” said Robert Muasya, head of se­cu­rity for Kenya’s Wildlife Ser­vice. “If we catch a poacher, we are able to an­a­lyse his phone and an­a­lyse the con­tent ... know whether this phone had ap­peared some­where else, and we are able to con­nect the dots.”

It was thanks to Ms Yang’s phone that about a year af­ter she had left for Uganda, Tan­za­nian agents dis­cov­ered she was back in Dar es Salaam. But the unit still had a ma­jor prob­lem, said the agent. “We had no pho­to­graphs of her.”

Again, her mo­bile phone helped them track her to a house in the cen­tre. They laid a trap, and waited.

As dusk fell seven hours later, Ms Yang burst out of the house, dashed for her car and sped off. The agents fol­lowed, zig-zag­ging through heavy traf­fic. Fear­ing they would lose her, they hit her car to bring it to a halt.

Ms Yang was shocked by the agents’ au­dac­ity, said the NTSCIU agent: “She came out of the car very an­gry.”

HELD: Yang Feng Glan, cen­tre, who is sus­pected of traf­fick­ing ivory, is es­corted by po­lice of­fi­cers as she leaves the Kisutu Res­i­dents Mag­is­trate Court in Dar es Salaam, Tan­za­nia, in Oc­to­ber.

EN­DAN­GERED: An ele­phant in Serengeti Na­tional Park, where num­bers have fallen dra­mat­i­cally.

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