In 2015, a high-speed car chase through the streets of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania ended in a wild crash. A police officer ran their car into the fleeing vehicle, smashing them to a stop in front of a blue art deco hotel.
From the wreckage, stepped the unlikely leader of an international ivory smuggling cartel: an elderly, spectacle-wearing Chinese woman.
Yang-Fenglan, then 65, is not what you would expect the kingpin (queen-pin?) of such a hardcore criminal gang to look like: short, grandmotherly and very Chinese, Yang’s appearance is indeed deceiving. This woman, who was recently sentenced by a Tanzanian court, is responsible for having smuggled over 850 elephant tusks out of Africa and into China just between 2000 and 2004. A haul worth some $5.6 million.
Now 69, Yang, along with two African associates, is facing 15 hard years behind bars for her crimes, which she adamantly denies.
Yang moved to Tanzania in 1975, she speaks Swahili (on top of her native Mandarin) and owns two businesses in the country: a popular Chinese restaurant and an investment company, both in downtown Dar es Salaam. She mingled with Tanzanian elite and was largely respected in the community she lived and worked in. She even held the title of “secretary general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council.”
“I was not and am still not a typical businesswoman,” Yang told China Daily Africa in an interview in 2014. “I know I should have retired, but whenever I think that my language advantage and network can help many Chinese and Tanzanians and increase mutual trust and confidence, I do not want to stop.”
But while she was busy rubbing elbows with the upper echelons of the Tanzanian business community, slinging Chinese food and managing investments, Yang was also connecting Tanzanian poachers with the Chinese ivory market. She helped move literal tons of ivory over the last decade, during which time the Tanzanian elephant population plummeted by over 60 percent.
Prosecutors allege that Yang, “Intentionally did organize, manage and finance a criminal racket by collecting, transporting or exporting and selling government trophies.”
By bridging China’s ever-hungry market for ivory with the ruthless and greedy poachers of East Africa, she directly fueled the eradication of elephants throughout the region. That blood is on her hands.
Though, it’s unlikely she gives a damn about it.
“(15 years) is not punishment enough for the atrocities she committed, by being responsible for the poaching of thousands of elephants in Tanzania,” Amani Ngusaru, WWF country director, told Reuters. “She ran a network that killed thousands of elephants.”
Yang’s arrest definitely represents a big victory against poaching and the ivory trade at large. However, no one’s fooling themselves here: between 35,000 and 50,000 African elephants are killed every year to meet the demand for ivory around the world (particularly in China and Vietnam, where the tusks are carved to make jewelry or ornaments).
Putting Yang away might put a dent in that number, but it surely won’t curtail it completely. There are more Ivory Queens out there, and Africa’s elephants won’t truly be safe until every one of them is dead or rotting behind bars like Yang.