Boxes from Africa came through Kennedy airport and they were marked “African Wooden Handicraft” and “Wooden Statues.” That was not what was in the boxes.
On Wednesday federal authorities said that inside those boxes were what appeared to be wooden objects that were delicately carved and colorfully painted. They looked like statues, decorative snakes and musical instruments.
Authorities said that hidden inside those objects was hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of African elephant ivory being smuggled into the United States. Some of the tusks were coated with clay to look like pottery or stone.
On Wednesday six people were accused of taking part in a trans-Atlantic ring that routinely sneaked ivory much of it elaborately carved, out of three African countries — Uganda, Ivory Coast and Cameroon — that prohibit such exports and then slipped it past customs agents at Kennedy Airport in the elaborately disguised packages.
Once the ivory makes it through customs it is than quietly sold to dealers of African art for enormous profits in New York and other states.
On Wednesday federal agents arrested six suspects in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Texas, after tracking them for two years. They were all charged with conspiracy to smuggle ivory into the United States, which is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
On Wednesday Benton J. Campbell, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said that the defendants plundered precious natural resources for personal profit. Campbell said that their illegal trade threatens the continued existence of an endangered species and it will not be tolerated.
African elephants have been hunted for their ivory tusks and teeth for centuries and that has caused step declines in their numbers that by the late 1980s most countries had either banned the sale and importation of ivory or enacted severe restrictions.
Back in 1976 the united states made importing elephant ivory a crime and the government signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Officials say that poaching elephants for their ivory is still a main reason for the decline of their populations in Africa.
According to a criminal complaint unsealed in United States District Court in Brooklyn, the ring that was broken on Wednesday was tracked for two years by investigators who used close surveillance, infiltration by undercover agents and examinations of bank, phone and shipping records. Agents of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security were all involved with the investigation.
Investigators said that they discovered eight shipments of ivory to the United States, which one trafficker was paid $15,000 to bring from Cameroon. One shipment was worth $165,000, according to investigators.
“It is expensive in Africa,” one of the six accused people, Bandjan Sidime, 36, a native of Guinea, was recorded as saying, according to the complaint. “Always the ivory price go up like a diamond, like gold, all the time. It changes every day.”
Mr. Sidime said that the Ivory is very expensive because getting it out of Africa meant bribing so many people along the way, the complaint said.
Investigators let some of the hidden ivory, detected by X-rays of the art objects, go through so they could track them as they were delivered to various locations in New York.
Kemo Sylla, 32, a native of Liberia; Seidou Mfomboutmoun, 35, from Cameroon; Mamadi Doumbouya, 39, a native of Ivory Coast; and Drissa Diane, 43, and Mamadou Kone, 43, both of whom are naturalized United States citizens, and Mr. Sidme were all arrested by officials.