The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Prosecutors say this 66-year-old Chinese woman is one of Africa’s most notorious smugglers

Yang Feng Glan. (Elephant Action League)
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NAIROBI  — They call her the Queen of Ivory — a 66-year-old Chinese woman who became famous for her role in Africa’s illegal wildlife trade. Over 15 years, she helped smuggle more than 700 elephant tusks out of Africa, officials said Thursday. But as authorities closed in, Yang Feng Glan managed to evade arrest.

Until now.

Yang was detained in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam after a high-speed chase and is apparently the most prominent Chinese national charged with wildlife trafficking in Africa. The short, bespectacled owner of a well-known Chinese restaurant doesn’t fit the image of a poaching kingpin, but that’s exactly what she is, according to Tanzanian officials.

Yang was behind an illicit trade worth millions of dollars, using her ties to the Chinese and Tanzanian elite to move ivory across the world, officials said. Ivory trafficking has resulted in immense damage to wildlife across Africa, but particularly in Tanzania. Between 2009 and 2014, the country’s elephant population plummeted from 109,051 to 43,330.

“She was at the center of that killing,” said Andrea Crosta, the executive director of Elephant Action League, a U.S.-based environmental watchdog group.

China’s role in Africa’s poaching crisis is no secret. The country consumes tons of ivory every year, much of it mixed into holistic medicine with no proven value. That demand has driven low-level poachers across the continent to massacre elephant and rhino populations. But the role played by Chinese business people based in Africa has been hazy.

The story of Yang, who will now be tried in a Tanzania court, might change the way people think about the global ivory trade. If she is convicted, it will turn out that one of Africa’s wildlife-trafficking kingpins was also one of its most prominent Chinese interlocutors.

According to investigators, Yang came to Africa in the 1970s, just as China was beginning construction on a railway in Tanzania. She was a translator back then, one of her country’s first trained Swahili speakers.

Yang moved around eastern Africa, becoming a well-known businesswoman, founding a company called Beijing Great Wall Investment and an eatery called Beijing Restaurant. By 2012, she was the secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council. She named her daughter Fei, the first character of the word for Africa in Mandarin.

All the while, Tanzanian investigators said Thursday, she was smuggling millions of dollars in ivory to her contacts in China, even financing poachers who targeted animals in protected areas.

“She played a tremendous role in the killing of animals,” said a senior Tanzanian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. “She helped buy the poachers guns and ammunition. She was the connection between the local brokers and the international market.”

Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) identified Yang more than a year ago and followed her role in the smuggling network, authorities said. They found that she was using her restaurant in downtown Dar es Salaam as a cover, sneaking ivory from outside of the city into food shipments that went to the kitchen, they said.

It was the same restaurant Yang had spoken proudly about in the Chinese press.

“Now I do not count on the restaurant to make money,” she told the China Daily newspaper last year. “Instead, I see it as a place where people from China and Tanzania can communicate, get to know more friends and conduct information exchanges.”

As China’s investment in Africa boomed in recent years, rumors swirled about the relationship between the country’s development projects on the continent and the illegal ivory trade. But Chinese smugglers were rarely arrested. They were too well-connected to the government, many suspected. Many said they believe that’is how Yang managed to operate with impunity for so many years.

“When we think of a kingpin, we think of someone like Al Capone,” Crosta said. “But this was someone who mingled with the country’s elite, who blended in.”

Tanzanian officials sent to arrest Yang last week surrounded her house for seven hours. She managed to sneak out a side door and jump into her car. She then led authorities on a car chase through part of the city.

“Eventually we cornered her,” the senior Tanzanian official said. “She put her hands up.”

Then Tanzanian law enforcement agents got their first up-close look at the woman they referred to as the Queen of Ivory. She was out of breath after running from them.

“That is the shark we were chasing,” the Tanzanian official said.