Tanzanian “Ivory Queen” re-sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for ivory trafficking

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12 December 2021

In most jurisdictions around the world, successful prosecutions of high-level wildlife traffickers are rare. Law enforcement agencies often struggle to collect sufficient (and permissible) evidence against such individuals. Even when they succeed, it is not unusual for the perpetrator to escape justice by bribing key justice system officials or leveraging their connections with influential individuals.

Tanzania has also had its fair share of wildlife crime prosecution failures. In 2020, the 2017 conviction of ivory trafficking kingpin Boniface Mathew Malyango, known as “Shetani Hana Huruma” (“the Devil has no mercy” in Kiswahili), was overturned by Tanzania’s High Court for major evidential problems, including a broken chain of custody. In 2019, another major ivory trafficker, Mateso “Chupi” Kasian, received a puny fine of US$215 – a small sum compared to the enormity of the trafficking operation he supposedly controlled. This article provides valuable insights into why so many wildlife prosecutions fail.

Given the challenges faced, it is to be applauded that Tanzania has succeeded in bringing to justice one of the most notorious ivory traffickers the country has known.

On 8 December 2021 the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court sentenced Chinese businesswoman Yang Fenglan (widely known as the “Ivory Queen”) and her Tanzanian accomplices Salvius Matembo and Manase Philemon to 15 years imprisonment each for trafficking 860 pieces of elephant tusks valued at 13.9 billion Tanzanian shillings (US$ 6,5 million) to China between 1 January 2000 and 22 May 2014.

The trio were also sentenced to pay a fine of two times the market value of the elephant tusks or two years imprisonment if in default of paying. In addition, the magistrate ordered the confiscation of the farm owned by Yang at Mheza in Tanga City, which was used to hide the elephant tusks for illegal export outside the country.

The three were first sentenced in February 2019 (after being arrested in 2015), but in June 2021 Tanzania’s High Court nullified this decision over anomalies in the way the judgment was written by not providing the points of determination in the case. The High Court returned the case file to the trial court for composition of another judgment, including re-sentencing the trio in case the court was to convict them of the offence charged.

Yang and her accomplices may yet appeal against the latest Court decision, but it is hoped their judgment will stand.

Investigators believe Yang may have been active since the 1980s and is responsible for the killing of thousands of elephants.

Born in Beijing, China in 1949, Yang moved to Tanzania in 1975, where she worked as a translator in the construction of the TAZARA Railway, at the time China’s most significant African investment. After the project, she moved back to China, but returned in 1998 to set up Beijing restaurant in Dar es Salaam and Beijing Great Wall Investment. She also served as vice-chairwoman and secretary-general of the China-Africa Business Council of Tanzania.

Featured image: Fang Yenglan in court. © Emmanuel Herman/Reuters.

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