DAR ES SALAAM • Tanzania has detained a prominent Chinese businesswoman reportedly known as the "Ivory Queen" for allegedly running a criminal network responsible for smuggling tusks cut from more than 350 elephants.
Police in the country's commercial capital of Dar es Salaam are holding 66-year-old Yang Feng Glan in a maximum security prison until a bail hearing tomorrow.
The China Daily gave her name as Yang Fenglan.
According to court documents seen by Reuters, Yang has been charged with smuggling 706 pieces of ivory between 2000 and 2004 worth 5.44 billion Tanzanian shillings (S$3.54 million), and faces up to 30 years in jail if convicted.
In a press statement on its website, the Los Angeles-based Elephant Action League (EAL) called Yang "the most notorious ivory trafficker brought to task so far in the war against elephant poaching".
VICTORY FOR THE ELEPHANTS
It's the news that we all have been waiting for, for years. Finally, a high-profile Chinese trafficker is in jail. Hopefully, she can lead us to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials. We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant.
MR ANDREA CROSTA, from the Los Angeles-based Elephant Action League on Yang Feng Glan
Perhaps most shocking is that she is secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council, owning many cars, properties and a popular Chinese restaurant in Dar es Salaam.
The EAL said Yang is originally from Beijing where she was the first student to graduate in Swahili. China sent her to Africa in 1975 as a translator, when it started to help build Tanzania's railway network.
Tanzania's National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) alleged that Yang has been trafficking ivory since at least 2006, but possibly as early as the 1980s, working with the most high-ranking poachers in the country and in the region.
Connected to various companies abroad, all Chinese-owned, she moved in the upper echelons of Chinese citizens living and working in Tanzania, the EAL said. After the unit started tracking her activities, Yang reportedly moved to Uganda. But police nabbed her when she returned earlier this month.
She appeared at the Kisutu magistrate's court, along with Tanzanians Salvius Matembo and Manase Philemon, in Dar es Salaam, according to Britain's The Guardian. She was charged with smuggling ivory but did not enter a plea.
Her court appearance came just one week after another Chinese woman, Li Ling Ling, and four Tanzanians were charged in the same court with aiding the smuggling of ivory to Switzerland.
In December last year, Interpol agents arrested a Kenyan, Feisal Ali Mohammed, who is alleged to be an organised crime boss and a leading figure in the illegal ivory trade.
The crime is particularly serious in Tanzania, whose elephant population has declined from 110,000 in 2009 to a little over 43,000 last year. Conservation groups blame "industrial-scale" poaching.
Burgeoning Asian economies such as China, the world's biggest consumer of elephant tusks, and Vietnam continue to demand ivory for jewellery and ornaments, which has led to a spike in poaching across Africa.
The plummeting wildlife population in Africa has also been in the international spotlight since an American dentist killed famed Zimbabwean lion Cecil "for sport".
China announced a one-year ban on the import of African ivory carvings, but conservationists say corruption is fuelling poaching in Tanzania. The EAL praised Tanzania, however, for nabbing Yang.
"It's the news that we all have been waiting for, for years," its founder Andrea Crosta said in a statement.
"Finally, a high-profile Chinese trafficker is in jail. Hopefully, she can lead us to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials. We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant."