The downfall of Yang Fenglan, the “Ivory Queen”

New Statesman
Nairobi, Kenya

2016_22_ellieLate last year, a car chase through the streets of Dar es Salaam ended outside a blue art deco hotel when police officers rammed their car into another belonging to their suspect: a small, bespectacled Chinese woman in her mid-sixties.

On the face of it, Yang Fenglan – a Swahili- and Mandarin-speaking restaurant owner and a pillar of the Chinese business community in Tanzania – seemed an unlikely target for an undercover operation that had involved multiple security agencies. Days later, she appeared in court, charged with attempting to smuggle more than 700 elephant tusks – with a combined weight of nearly 1.9 tonnes and a market value of over £1.4m – to east Asia.

China is the world’s biggest market for ivory but it is rare to see the arrest of Chinese traders who are operating at the level alleged by Yang’s accusers. Her lawyer asserts that she is innocent.

But Yang’s case seems typical, says Tom Milliken of Traffic, a monitoring network that tracks the illegal wildlife trade. He speaks of others who have been “in Africa for a long time, embedded in a community”, and have “moved from legal activities to aggressively pursue the ivory trade”.

Yang first came to Tanzania in 1975 after studying Swahili in Beijing. She worked as a translator during the construction of the 1,160-mile Tazara Railway, linking Zambia’s landlocked copper belt with Tanzania’s coast – at the time China’s most significant African investment.

When the railway was completed, Yang returned to China. It wasn’t until 1998 that she came back to Tanzania for good, opening her Beijing Restaurant – an unpretentious place with a palm-thatched roof – and establishing a company that, among other ventures, grows peppers and jackfruit for export.

Her fluency in Swahili gave her an edge over her compatriots and competitors. Yang became a regular at international trade fairs in Dar es Salaam and secretary-general of the China-Africa Business Council of Tanzania.

“I do not count on the restaurant to make money,” she told the China Daily newspaper in 2014. “Instead, I see it as a place where people from China and Tanzania can communicate, get to know more friends and conduct information exchanges.” She stressed her willingness to help other Chinese people navigate the idiosyncrasies of Tanzania’s Byzantine bureaucracy, pointing out: “I was not, and am still not, a typical businesswoman.”

The ivory bust that led to Yang’s arrest occurred in late 2013 when police raided a house close to her restaurant in Dar es Salaam. The authorities found 706 tusks packed inside a shipping container alongside snails and garlic, piles of cash, weighing scales and a minibus with two sets of licence plates and a hidden compartment. Officers also found three Chinese men, who offered a £35,000 bribe before being arrested.

Documents at the house showed that shipments were being sent from the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar. Eleven days later, a container inspection at the port revealed another 1,023 pieces of ivory weighing almost three tonnes. Huang Gin and Xu Fujie were found guilty in March and sentenced to 30 years in prison or a £32m fine (Tanzania passed a punitive wildlife law in 2015).

The only English-speaker among the three, Chen Jinzhan, was acquitted. He and Yang share the same defence lawyer. Investigators turned their attention to Yang in mid-2014, when a Mandarin-speaking Tanzanian ivory broker called Julius Manase named her as his main buyer. She disappeared soon after Manase was charged.

Across Africa, more than 30,000 elephants are killed every year. In the five years up to 2014, Tanzania’s elephant population fell by 60 per cent. And yet the situation is improving. A special anti-poaching unit secured the arrest of Yang and others, including Boniface Mariango, a Tanzanian nicknamed “Shetani” (meaning “the Devil”), who moved into the space left by Manase.

“The task force” – as it is known among conservationists – got going only in 2014 after a £1m donation from the American philanthropist David Bonderman. “The task force now has funding from foreign donors, which enables them to conduct their multi-agency, intelligence-led investigations in a sustained manner, and that’s what has made the difference,” says Mary Rice, the executive director of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

As a result of Tanzania’s tough new wildlife law – and, crucially, the willingness of judges to apply it – suspects are no longer bailed when they are brought in and able to skip the country. The election of the reformist president John Magufuli in October 2015 has also been significant. Magufuli heads the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party but has clamped down on corruption and worked to strengthen the judiciary.

“Impunity isn’t what it was,” says one person familiar with the case, who warns: “This trial could be embarrassing for the CCM and for China. It’s a house of cards.”