Conservationists, law enforcement team up to infiltrate wildlife crime syndicates
By Rachel Nuwer |
On June 12, Moazu Kromah, a Liberian citizen codenamed “Kampala Man,” was arrested in Uganda. The very next day, Kromah found himself standing in a federal courthouse in New York City as a judge read the charges against him–among them, conspiracy to sell rhino horns and elephant ivory valued at $7.4 million.
While a handful of high-level animal parts traffickers have been arrested before, experts believe this case represents a paradigm shift in how governments can combat illegal wildlife trade: by aggressively infiltrating and dismantling criminal syndicates, and by building strong cases to ensure the syndicate’s members are brought to justice.
“We’re not reacting to a seizure or a tip on an incident, we’re identifying criminal networks and proactively going after them,” says David Hubbard, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) special agent in charge of the international operations unit. “I think this is truly a game changer for the wildlife trafficking world.”
Kromah, along with his partner, Amara Cherif, a Guinea citizen also named on the indictment, allegedly headed one of the largest wildlife crime syndicates in Africa. Cherif was arrested in Senegal a few days before Kromah and his extradition to the US is now pending. Mansur Mohamed Surur and Abdi Hussein Ahmed, two Kenyans currently at large, appear on the indictment as well.
Kromah, Cherif, and Surur face additional charges of money laundering, while Surur and Ahmed are also charged with possession with intent to distribute over 20 pounds of heroin. According to Chris Thouless, director of the Elephant Crisis Fund at Save the Elephants, a non-profit conservation group in Kenya, these additional charges exemplify the fact that illegal wildlife trade frequently goes hand in hand with other forms of crime—and that inclusion of those crimes can significantly strengthen sentences. In this case, the wildlife charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but the drug possession one carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life.
For Africa’s rhinos and elephants, the alleged criminals’ business was “as destructive as it was lucrative,” saidUS Attorney Geoffrey Berman. According to the indictment, since 2012, the defendants conspired to traffic and sell at least 200 pounds of rhino horn and 10 tons of elephant ivory, representing some 35 poached rhinos and more than 1,000 elephants. Based out of Uganda, their transnational criminal activities spanned at least seven countries in East and West Africa, with customers as far-flung as the United States and Southeast Asia.