Tanzania took an important step this week to combat the ivory trade and save the African elephant.
The country's National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit on Thursday arrested a string of high-level ivory traffickers accused of illegally smuggling elephant tusks from East Africa to East Asia. Among those arrested was Yang Feng Glan, a 66-year-old Chinese native known as the "Queen of Ivory."
Tanzania has accused Yang of smuggling 706 elephant tusks, weighing about 4,200 pounds and worth about $2.5 million, according to The Citizen, a local newspaper. She faces up to 30 years in prison, the U.S.-based watchdog Elephant Action League reported.
For centuries, elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks, which are then made into jewelry, ornamental carvings and chopsticks. The worldwide ivory trade has largely been responsible for a dramatic decline in the number of elephants. In 1800, there were an estimated 26 million of them in Africa, according to National Geographic. By 2007, the population was down to roughly half a million.
In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species classified the African elephant as an endangered species and banned the trade in elephant ivory in certain countries. Some African nations saw fewer elephant killings after the ban, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted, although the war against ivory poaching and trading was hardly won. In 2012, some 35,000 African elephants were destroyed for their tusks, the Humane Society International reported. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of elephants in Tanzania fell by a whopping 60 percent, from 109,051 to 43,330.
The Obama administration issued an executive order officially banning the commercial ivory trade in the United States last year. In June, the U.S. destroyed over a ton of elephant ivory in New York City's Times Square to send a warning message to poachers and traders around the world.
Although China has also made public shows of destroying elephant tusks and ivory carvings, the country is believed to be the world's largest consumer of illegal ivory. In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to work with the U.S. to impose "nearly complete bans" on the ivory trade. While this was hailed as a significant step, some critics argued that it might not be enough, as many Chinese people still see ivory ornaments as status symbols.
Yang is "thought to be most notorious ivory trafficker brought to task so far in the war against elephant poaching," the Elephant Action League wrote. The league noted that she has allegedly been involved in the Tanzanian ivory trade since at least 2006 -- a trade that encompasses poachers, Chinese-owned companies and high Chinese society in Tanzania.
The Elephant Action League hopes that Yang's arrest will bring others in the illegal industry closer to justice. "Finally, a high-profile Chinese trafficker is in jail," league co-founder Andrea Crosta said Thursday. "Hopefully she can lead us to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials. We must put an end to the time of the untouchables if we want to save the elephant."
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