A two-year international undercover operation resulted last week in the arrest of two Congolese men accused of trafficking illegal wildlife into the United States, as well as the seizure of $3.5 million worth of elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and pangolin scales in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the Justice Department and court documents.
Starting in the summer of 2020, the two men, Herdade Lokua, 23, and Jospin Mujangi, 31, sent multiple packages by commercial airmail to Seattle containing 54 pounds of ivory and rhino horn priced at more than $30,000, prosecutors said in a statement on Monday.
Mr. Lokua and Mr. Mujangi, both of Kinshasa, later proposed an ambitious deal to smuggle three tons of wildlife contraband from Africa to Seattle in a shipping container, the statement said. After flying to Washington State to negotiate the potential sale, they were captured by law enforcement and arrested on Nov. 3 in Edmonds, Wash.
The joint operation was conducted by the Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Seattle, the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“These criminal organizations don’t care about life, only profit,” said Robert Hammer, a special agent in charge who oversees Department of Homeland Security investigations in the Pacific Northwest. “Unfortunately when we are dealing with a species that has a finite quantity, you can only make it so ‘rare’ before it becomes extinct.”
African elephants, pangolins and white rhinoceroses are internationally protected species threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Elephants, in particular, are among the most endangered animals in the world. Although there are only about 400,000 elephants in Africa today, experts estimate that millions of elephants roamed the continent a century ago.
To peddle their illegal goods, Mr. Lokua and Mr. Mujangi used encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate with an anonymous intermediary who helped coordinate shipment and payments between the defendants and undercover U.S. law enforcement officials, according to court documents.
They chatted about creative ways to ensure safe passage of the contraband, like spray-painting ivory to resemble rare ebony wood, concealing tusks in carved wooden masks and bribing local Congolese officials, the indictment said. To evade detection, the men requested payments in installments routed to different accounts, including one at a Chinese bank.
After their arrest, they were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of money laundering, conspiracy, smuggling and violating national wildlife trafficking regulations. The federal trial is scheduled to begin in January. They face up to 25 years in prison.
The two men were captured with the help of DNA sampling from a previously seized ivory haul, which experts at the University of Washington used to pinpoint the area the poached elephants came from and then link the seizures to specific crime organizations. Seized tusks originating from one elephant but smuggled separately can be connected and then associated to the crime syndicate exporting them, according to Sam Wasser, co-executive director of the Center for Environmental Forensic Science at the university.
“Individual seizures by themselves are kind of a drop in the bucket, but they are a gold mine of information that can help us to get to the bigger problem,” Dr. Wasser said. “The end goal is to keep the ivory from getting into transit.”
The ability to move vast sums of ivory and other contraband in tons is one sign of a transnational crime organization, he added, estimating that one ton of ivory equals about 90 dead elephants.
Sea freight complicates tracing and intercepting illegal wares. What authorities do manage to track down represents only a fraction of what is successfully smuggled outside Africa in shipping containers, Dr. Wasser said.
In its 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report, the United Nations estimated that from 2016 to 2018, the annual income from ivory trafficking amounted to about $400 million, and $230 million for rhino horns.
Raw ivory in Asia fetches roughly $300 per pound, according to an investigation conducted last year by the Wildlife Justice Commission.
The international ivory trade has been banned for three decades, and individual countries have taken additional measures to restrict sales. A 2016 study using carbon dating of more than 200 tusks from seizures spanning nine countries suggested that illegal ivory originates from elephants poached recently, instead of being pilfered from aging stockpiles kept by various nations.
“We found that most of the ivory was less than three years old,” Kevin Uno, a paleoecologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said on Friday. “That’s bad news for elephants and good for governments because they’re there safeguarding their stockpiles.”
In 2016, the U.S. established steep restrictions on commercial sales of ivory products both in and out of state amounting to a near-total ban, with certain exceptions for items like century-old antiques. A handful of states, including New York, California and Washington, also prohibit in-state ivory sales.
In 2017, China banned the ivory trade, but the country remains one of the largest markets for wildlife contraband including ivory and pangolin scales, according to the U.N.
Recent seizures indicate that traffickers are transporting the two products together, Dr. Wasser said, adding that the drastic increase in pangolin poaching is a “ticking time bomb.”
The international pangolin trade was shut off in 2017. Pangolins are considered to be the most trafficked mammals worldwide. From 2014 to 2018, pangolin scale seizures increased tenfold, according to the 2020 U.N. report.
The declining numbers of threatened wildlife only serve to drive up prices and increase profits for illegal crime, Mr. Hammer said, adding that the extinction of vulnerable species could potentially result in legalizing trade.
“Money is the root cause of this, unfortunately, and the animals are the victims of greed,” he said.