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article image'Queen of Ivory' arrested, charged in major smuggling operation

By Megan Hamilton     Oct 12, 2015 in Crime
She's known as the "Queen of Ivory" and for more than 15 years, she allegedly helped smuggle more than 700 elephant tusks out of Africa and across the world.
She kept a high-profile, owning a popular Chinese restaurant, yet managed to evade capture.
Until it all ended abruptly.
Yang Feng Glan was detained in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's capital after leading authorities on a high-speed chase, The Washington Post notes. Apparently she's the most prominent Chinese national charged with wildlife trafficking in Africa.
Yang Feng Glan.
Yang Feng Glan.
YouTube screen grab Newsy
Many of Glan's suppliers were also arrested, CNN reports.
"Across Africa, they keep arresting small fish here and there," Andrea Crosta, a spokesman for the Elephant Action League (EAL), told CNN. "They have finally caught a big fish." EAL is a non-profit organization that fights wildlife trafficking.
Yang is accused of allegedly smuggling 706 elephant tusks, weighing some 4,200 pounds. It's estimated the tusks are worth about $2.5 million, The World Post reports. Glan faces as much as 30 years in prison, EAL reports.
Across the centuries, elephants have been plundered for their tusks, which are turned into jewelry, carvings, and chopsticks, or they are ground into folk remedies that have no medicinal value. Most tragically, the trade in ivory is responsible for a precipitous decline in their numbers. There were an estimated 26 million elephants in Africa in 1800, but by 2007, the population of these magnificent creatures had shrunk to half a million.
The Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed the African elephant as an endangered species in 1989 and banned the trade in ivory in certain countries. That did reduce the number of killings after the ban, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports, but hardly enough to make a dent in the war on ivory poaching. In 2012, at least 35,000 African elephants were murdered for their tusks, according to the Humane Society International. The World Post reports that between 2009 and 2014, the number of elephants in Tanzania plummeted 60 percent, from 109,051 to 43,330.
It's for this reason that Tanzania has been considered the ground zero of elephant poaching in East Africa over the past several years, EAL reports in a press release.
Glan was under surveillance when an elite police task force apprehended her on Sept.28 in Dar es Salaam after a brief car chase, CNN reports. On Thursday she appeared in Tanzania's High Court and was denied bail.
Investigators say that Yang came to Africa in the 1970s when China started construction on a railway in Tanzania. As one of the first in her country to be trained in Swahili, she worked as a translator, the Post reports.
Over the years she moved around eastern Africa, becoming a wealthy businesswoman, founding the company Beijing Great Wall Investment and opening the Beijing Restaurant. She served as the secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council.
On Thursday, Tanzanian investigators said that all during this time, she was smuggling millions of dollars worth of ivory to contacts in China, and even financed poachers who killed animals in protected areas.
"She played a tremendous role in the killing of animals," said one senior Tanzanian official who spoke on condition of remaining anonymous because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case in public. "She helped buy the poachers guns and ammunition. She was the connection between the local brokers and the international market."
Glan was identified by Tanzania's National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) over a year ago and the unit followed her role in the smuggling network, investigators say. It turned out that she was using her restaurant in downtown Dar es Salaam as a cover, hiding ivory from outside of the city in food shipments that went into the kitchen, authorities said.
CNN reports that the unit has arrested at least one person involved in wildlife trafficking every day since its inception.
Through the elite unit, the government has "stepped up Tanzania's war on poaching," said government spokeswoman Assah Mwambene.
Some say that demand is the main issue, and China has long been highlighted as the source of the problem since it is the largest ivory importer in the world.
"The elephant species is in the hands of the Chinese President," Crosta said. "Once the president decides to close down the legal market of ivory and elephant in China, the poaching of elephants will end."
Last year, the Obama administration issued an executive order that officially banned the commercial ivory trade in the U.S. Earlier this year, the U.S. destroyed more than a ton of ivory in New York City's Times Square, and this served as a warning message to poachers and traffickers worldwide, The World Post reports.
In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to work alongside the U.S. to impose "nearly complete bans" on the ivory trade. Although this is considered a significant step, some critics said it might not be enough. Many people still view ivory as a status symbol.
Crosta, EAL's co-founder said he is hopeful that Yang's arrest will also bring others involved in poaching and wildlife trafficking closer to justice, including corrupt government officials.
"We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant," he said.
When Tanzanian officials went to arrest Yang last week, they surrounded her house for seven hours, The Washington Post reports. She briefly avoided them when she managed to sneak out a side door and jump into her car. That's when she led them on the merry chase.
Once she realized capture was inevitable, she put her hands up, the official said.
That's when officials got their first good look at the woman they called the Queen of Ivory. She was out of breath after trying to evade them.
They found that Glan, 66, short and bespectacled, looked rather more like the owner of a restaurant than someone involved in a notorious smuggling operation. Obviously, looks can be deceiving.
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