Four of the 'wildlife smugglers' arrested by Congo police now held in Brazzaville. They are alleged to be part of gangs shipping big loads of illegal wildlife parts to Southeast Asia and China. Photo: Supplied
Four of the 'wildlife smugglers' arrested by Congo police now held in Brazzaville. They are alleged to be part of gangs shipping big loads of illegal wildlife parts to Southeast Asia and China. Photo: Supplied

A seven-ton haul of pangolin scales found by Customs officials in Hong Kong last Friday hidden in a shipping container sent from Africa to China has been linked to the arrest of wildlife traffickers in the Congo.

The haul was the second-biggest seizure of its kind in a decade and had an estimated market value of US$450,000 (HK$3.55 million), Hong Kong’s Customs Department said. The contents of the container were described as “880 bags of plastic raw materials”, the South China Morning Post reported.

Some 280 of the bags contained scales from pangolins, a type of anteater that Chinese diners like to eat.

An official in Hong Kong said the container was being sent to Guangdong province and it was possible the scales would be used for Chinese medicine.

‘Organized crime gangs’

Authorities in Asia and Africa have been ramping up investigative work to track organized crime gangs shipping vast quantities of wildlife products, such as this, through Southeast Asia to China.

The discovery in Hong Kong followed the arrest of five men – three Nigerians, a Chinese and a Congolese – allegedly caught red-handed with 1.8 tons of scales (from about 200 adult pangolins).

On July 19, an African wildlife enforcement task force revealed that the five men were in custody in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo, after being arrested for trafficking large consignments of protected wildlife species across international borders.

They said the men appeared to be part of a major criminal supply chain that has been smuggling multiple tons of elephant tusks and pangolin scales from Africa to Asia for several years.

Officers from six African countries are trying to track down a fugitive broker, and to identify financiers behind the shipments, which represent hundreds of elephants and thousands of pangolins.

The five were named as Zhang Ming Yang (Chinese), Emmanuel Agbo (Nigerian), Aboubalar Nasiru (Nigerian), John Paul Obiakor (Nigerian), and Ted Allan Otta Obongui (Congolese). They appeared in a court in Brazzaville after four of the men were caught on June 21 with 1.8 tonnes of pangolin scales as they crossed a coastal border point from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Brazzaville.

After the five were detained, the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) and the Congo authorities quietly pursued leads and located and arrested the suspects’ Congolese accomplice on June 28. The five men were then held in custody while prosecutors prepared their case and police hunted down additional suspects.

Investigators from LATF said the five men were planning to transport the contraband from Brazzaville by road to the port city of Douala in neighboring Cameroon, and then onto Lagos, Nigeria.

Guinean ‘Mr Big of wildlife trade’

“The suspects are linked to Kaba Mamadi, a major Guinean wildlife trafficking broker who is on the run after LATF previously linked him to multiple shipments of elephant tusks and pangolin scales seized in Southeast Asia,” a statement from the Freeland anti-trafficking group said.

“Mamadi had used this same channel to smuggle 2.1 tons of ivory that was seized in Thailand in 2015, and shipments of 3.3 tons and 3.8 tons of pangolin scales that were seized in Vietnam during April and May of this year.

“The latest prosecutions follow LATF’s arrests of eight other traffickers in Central Africa in April and May of this year, including three corrupt government officials. All of the 13 arrested since April appear to be connected, using common modus operandi and shared channels to traffic tusks and scales from Africa to Asia.”

Freeland believes these cases bear the hallmarks of Chinese and Nigerian organized crime. One of the arrested is linked to a Chinese-owned, Lagos-based clearing-house. Numerous seizures of wildlife en route to China via Southeast Asia were exported from Nigeria.

It said there has been better cross-border enforcement success since African enforcement personnel received specialized training. These officers were “convened to share information and learn how to apply advanced analytics technology and methods to illuminate clues”.

The training was provided by Freeland and the Lusaka task force, with financial support from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. African countries were also benefiting from cooperation with Vietnam.

“Our analytical skills and our networks are fast improving, allowing us to catch up with sophisticated cross-border trafficking rings,” Edward Phiri, acting director of the Lusaka task force said.

“Historically, wildlife traffickers have cooperated with one another better than law enforcers have,” Freeland’s Sean O’Regan said. “That equation is changing.”

“This latest success is profound in that it took months instead of years to achieve,” Steve Galster, founder of Freeland said. “Chalk that up to the right people working together, using the right technology. With  resources, this task force can accelerate and expand these investigations to net even bigger results.”

Freeland is also providing training and analytical support to authorities in Southeast Asia, where they helped police identify Boonchai Bach, a Thai-Vietnamese wildlife smuggler who was arrested in January.

Freeland contends that Bach is part of a Vietnamese organized crime ring that sources wildlife in Asia and Africa for Chinese buyers. It says ongoing research points to several supply chains powered by Chinese, Vietnamese, and West Africa organized crime gangs “competing to buy up Africa’s and Asia’s dwindling supply of elephants, rhinos, big cats, pangolins, and prized flora”.