Central Africa: four-nation ‘sting’ operation busts wildlife smuggling ring

Conservationists hail breakthrough in regional co-operation to fight illegal traffic in ivory, parrots, skins and live animals.

Sting operations by wildlife activists in central Africa have broken up highly organised smuggling rings sending endangered species abroad, leading to the arrest of key dealers and the recovery of hundreds of kilos of ivory, turtle shells and animal skins.

The clampdown took place across four neighbouring countries: Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.Observers said the arrests last week, co-ordinated by the Last Great Ape Organisation (Laga), a wildlife law-enforcement NGO, in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic and Congo-Brazzaville, marked a big step towards regional enforcement of the laws protecting endangered species.

In Gabon, undercover agents posing as smugglers picked up 16 dealers in possession of 150kg of illegal polished ivory. The haul, estimated to be worth about £90,000 on the international market and probably destined for China, the world’s leading market for “white gold”, was going via Nigeria, one of the main smuggling routes. All 16 were remanded in custody, having been refused bail following the operation, which focused on a hotel, a local market and a sculptor’s studio following a long investigation.

Luc Mathot, of the agency AALF (appui à l’Application de la Loi sur la Faune), who proposed the project to the government, said it was the first time ivory dealers in the country had been put in jail. “This shows that the Gabonese authorities are now prepared to monitor, hunt down, condemn and imprison ivory dealers – that the law on ivory dealing in Gabon is finally being enforced,” he said.

In Cameroon, three dealers trading 17 turtle shells were arrested. A cargo of 1,000 African grey parrots worth an estimated £65,000 was intercepted being smuggled into Nigeria and a policeman was arrested on suspicion of accepting a £2,000 bribe to release it and allow it on its way.

The operation in the Central African Republic recovered seven leopard skins, two lion skins and two tusks concealed beneath a pile of cowhides in a dealer’s truck. He was arrested. The skins were thought to be destined for Europe or the US to decorate wealthy homes. On the same day, wildlife activists in Ouesso in the north of Congo-Brazzaville found a further 30kg of ivory.

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