Dar es Salaam. The elderly Chinese woman dubbed “Ivory Queen” following her arrest and link to $2.5 million (Sh5.4 billion) smuggled ivory, masked her business behind a successful restaurant business and horticultural farming, The Citizen can report.
Ms Yang Fenglan, 66, was on the radar for over a year before an elite unit set up to fight poaching pounced on her last week in a car chase in Dar es Salaam. She has apparently been in the country most of the time since the 1970s and has even a daughter who is married to a Tanzanian.
Ms Yang has been accused of smuggling 706 elephant tusks from Tanzania between 2000 and May 2014. She was charged in court on Wednesday, and could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Sources working closely with the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU), and who preferred anonymity, told The Citizen that her arrest was a major breakthrough in the fight against poaching that has seen Tanzania’s elephant population plummet by 40 per cent in a decade.
The woman is not a new comer in Tanzania. She first came to Tanzania in 1975 and she had been on and off in Tanzania until 1997 when she decided to settle in the country.
According to the source, Ms Yang speaks fluent Kiswahili. She is a graduate at the China’s Beijing Foreign Studies University where she studied Kiswahili language between 1971 and 1974. Before she enrolled at the university, she studied economics and graduated at the Beijing University.
What brought Ms Yang to Tanzania in the first place was her mastery of Kiswahili. She came into the country as an interpreter for the Chinese experts who were building the Tanzania-Zambia railway and stayed in the country until 1978 when she returned to China.
In 1993, Ms Yang came back to Tanzania, this time as an interpreter for the Chinese experts who were running the Kiwira Coal mine in Mbeya. She stayed until 1995 before going back to her home land again.
“According to her, she came back to Tanzania in 1997. She told us during interrogation that she was sent by the Chinese government to explore the possibility of finding a reliable supply of fruits which could be exported to China,” said the source, adding: “She however decided to stay in Tanzania after her fruits exports report was not approved.”
With a degree in economics, Ms Yang then had to find some business to run in order to sustain her welfare in a foreign country.
As she was aware that there was a considerable number of Chinese people living and working in Tanzania, Ms Yang thought of offering what her colleagues really missed –Chinese food.
She thus opened a Chinese restaurant in 1997 at Morocco in Kinondoni. She would later shift the restaurant to Masaki in 2000 and run it until 2002 when she shifted the business to Mikocheni’s Regency Estate.
She operated the business at Regency Estate until 2007 when she shifted to Chato Street in Kariakoo where she operated the restaurant for another five years.
Sources close to NTSCIU said Ms Yang has a big farm in Muheza District which she bought in 2009. She uses the 10-hectare farm to grow hot pepper which she exports to her native China.
Ms Yang was charged at the Kisutu court on Wednesday along with Tanzanians Salvius Matembo and Manase Philemon. She is alleged to have operated in Tanzania for 14 years as the main link between poachers and international buyers.
She has allegedly been financing people who have been killing elephants in protected areas, and she bought elephant tusks and supplied them to other people engaged in the illegal trade in ivory.
State Attorney Nassor Katuga told the court that the accused committed the offence between January 1, 2000 and May 22, 2014. According to Mr Katuga, Ms Yang was involved in the smuggling and trading of 706 elephant tusks weighing 1,889 kilogrammes worth Sh5.4 billion without a licence from the Director of Wildlife.
Going by the estimates of anti-poaching experts, the 706 tusks mean that about 350 elephants were slaughtered.
Stories of her involvement in poaching and ivory trade reached the NTSCIU after they arrested one of her accomplices in June 2014. However, the source told The Citizen that Ms Yang was extensively involved in the ivory trade between 2007 and 2013.
“During interrogation, her accomplice told us that he used to sell the trophies to Ms Yang after collecting the cargo from various parts of the country,” the source said.
“It took investigators about a year to arrest her. The cops began tracking her in April 2014 and managed to arrest her in September this year in Dar es Salaam,” added the source.
“In all those years since 1997, she used to rent houses in residential areas where she run her Chinese restaurants. She used to stay at the same areas as where she opened the restaurants. But in 2012 she bought a flat in Kariakoo,” said the source.
According to the source, Ms Yang left the flat in Kariakoo to Muheza where she built three houses and opened her hot pepper farm and a medium-scale oil processing plant.
“Her Chinese husband is said to be living in Tanga with his local in-laws who married the couple’s daughter,” added the source.
According to the NTSCIU officers, they believe Ms Yang has a broad network of poachers and ivory smugglers. “She has a wide network and links with ivory brokers and international traffickers. Ivory brokers who collected ivory from the field used to sell the consignment to her,” said the source.
The source said Ms Yang has links with fellow Chinese who owned firms engaged in fishing and exporting sea cucumbers.
“The smugglers export sea cucumbers together with the ivory and label their consignment as sea cucumbers exports,” added the source.
According to him, the ivory traffickers used to smuggle ivory through the Dar es Salaam port. After a tight screening at the port, they dealers then shifted to Zanzibar.
“We believe that the ivory consignment nabbed at the Zanzibar port in recent years was one of her illegal dealings,” the source added. In November 2013, several tonnes of elephant ivory were found concealed in a freight container in Zanzibar. The ivory was stuffed into plastic sacks containing sea shells – each weighing 50 kilogrammes. Two suspects – a clearing agent and a businessman were arrested. Police had in the same month arrested three Chinese businessmen who were found in possession of 706 pieces of ivory and the week before that, a roadblock found 89 tusks concealed in the boot of a car.
NTSCIU has described the arrest of the ‘Ivory Queen” as a major breakthrough in combating poaching in the country.
“Her arrest has opened the door for us to indentify the international ivory trafficking network and links.”
The extensive syndicate of ivory dealers, according to the elite unit, have been smuggling ivory through Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya via Mombasa port.
They also use the southern route through Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. “In recent past we seized about 2.5 tonnes of ivory which were smuggled through Malawi,” said one of our source.
According to the source, the hunt for ivory dealers has been intensified and the arrest of Ms Yang has forced some of big dealers to flee the country.
“We will not leave any stone unturned until we arrest all those involved in poaching,” he said.
“A unit of poaching syndicate may involve a team of between 70 and 100 people, mostly the locals, who go into the field for poaching, as well as dealers and facilitators who act as middlemen,” explained the source.
According to him, over 900 locals who were involved in poaching in various parts of the country have been arrested during the ongoing intensive anti-poaching covert operation coded ‘Spidernet’ while over 3,000 others who have not been arrested yet are being traced for their involvement in the illegal ivory trade.