The Elephant in the Room: A Special Agent Takes on Wildlife Trafficking
Poachers typically use poisoned arrows to kill elephants, but they also use AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades to kill whole herds for their tusks. (AP/Wide World photo)
According to the White House, wildlife trafficking is a multibillion-dollar business involving global criminal networks, including terrorist entities that deal in weapons, narcotics, and money laundering.
“Poachers target baby elephants knowing other herd members will huddle to protect their young. That’s how they kill whole herds for their tusks,” says the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) Supervisory Special Agent Noriko, then- regional security officer (RSO) at U.S. Embassy Togo in West Africa.
The ivory gets smuggled out of Africa and much of it delivered to carving factories in Asia. There, craftsmen use dentist drills to carve the ivory into sculptures such as mythological figures believed to bring good luck, money, and long life. These pieces sell for upwards of $200,000.
The price of ivory has skyrocketed in the past 25 years from $5 per kilogram to $2,100 – so much so that some endangered species are now worth more than their weight in gold, this according to Britain’s Prince William.
To address the recent spike in the slaughter of elephants – estimated at 100,000 between 2010 and 2012 – President Obama announced the National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking initiative in February 2014, which seeks to “increase coordination among law enforcement and intelligence agencies to enhance the effectiveness of federal efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.”
While posted in Togo, Agent Noriko did just that – coordinated with other law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to help the Togolese government process what turned out to be the largest ivory seizures in West Africa’s history.
The End of the Road for a Notorious Ivory Vendor
Agent Noriko recounts, “Back in August 2013, Mich Coker, the embassy’s economic officer, found out that ABC Nightline was about to air an exposé about wildlife trafficking. Apparently, the program was going to show incriminating, undercover video of Emile N'Bouke – an infamous ivory vendor in Togo, nicknamed ‘Le Patron.’ So we informed local officials that he might be a flight risk once the program airs locally. Not taking any chances, they went and arrested him the next day and asked us to help with the investigation.”
Confiscated from N’Bouke’s home and store in downtown Lomé were 1,540 pounds of ivory and stashes of bank statements, receipts, and client lists he had amassed over 30 years in business. The evidence seemed to indicate that N’Bouke had accomplices all over the world who might be engaged in money laundering and trafficking other illicit goods. Since Togo only has approximately 100 elephants left, he was obviously getting his ivory from other African countries.
|LEFT: Togolese officials charged this man, Emile N'Bouke, with wildlife trafficking and confiscated all his ivory. (AP/Wide World photo) CENTER and RIGHT: Investigators raided his store and home and seized 1,540 pounds of ivory, including sculptures, jewelry, and chopsticks. (U.S. Department of State photos)|
Togolese officials could not simply contact their counterparts in countries N’Bouke’s accomplices were operating in for fear of the investigation getting stymied by corrupt officials. So Agent Noriko helped officials contact INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organization, whose officers stationed in those countries would be able to follow up with their trusted contacts.
“I worked closely with Mich, who was also the science subject matter expert on this case,” says Agent Noriko. “One of the first things we needed to do was substantiate the age of the ivory.” Under CITES regulations, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, only ivory harvested before 1989 is allowed to be sold or traded. “Of course, N’Bouke claimed all his ivory was old. But we were not about to buy that story.”
Together with the economics officer, Agent Noriko contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) Service who sent an agent to Togo. He helped go through the receipts; collect ivory samples; and get the DNA testing done at the University of Washington and the isotope testing done at Columbia University, two of a few facilities in the world that provide this type of testing. The Togolese judge handling this case designated Agent Noriko as the law-enforcement official who would provide the chain of custody to ensure the lab results were untampered, and therefore admissible as court evidence.
As expected, the DNA test result from the University of Washington substantiated that N’Bouke was lying about the source of the ivory. He claimed all of it was from Chad. In fact, it was primarily from Central and East African countries. Furthermore, the isotope test result from Columbia University proved that the ivory had been harvested from elephants killed long after 1989 when the worldwide ban went into effect. These two test results provided the smoking gun critical to bringing N’Bouke to justice.
In order to analyze the data on N’Bouke’s cell phone and laptop seized during the raid, Agent Noriko contacted AFRICOM (U.S. Department of Defense Africa Command) since Togo does not have a digital forensics lab that can extract metadata from electronic devices. This information would enable them to see what websites N’Bouke had visited and people he had contacted. Again, the Togolese judge designated Agent Noriko as the custodian of the digital evidence to ensure its admissibility in court.
In spite of all this evidence, N’Bouke claimed he had done nothing wrong. But after a heated hearing in a packed courthouse in Lomé in June 2014, the Togolese judge determined that N’Bouke had violated Togo’s environmental and forestry law that includes a ban on all ivory trade, and sentenced him to pay a fine and serve a two-year jail sentence – the maximum allowable under Togolese law.
Agent Noriko says, “Over the past few years, U.S. Embassy Togo has sent hundreds of Togolese police and security officials to various U.S.-funded training where they acquired law-enforcement skills and resources. We see the return on investment when high-profile cases like these come up and Togolese officials are using those newly acquired skills and resources to combat crime in their own country.”
Togo Seizes Shipment of Ivory Worth $8 Million
Ambassador Robert Whitehead, U.S. Embassy Togo, inspects the seized ivory at the port of Lomé, Togo, on January 28, 2014. (U.S. Department of State photo)
The only natural deep water port in West Africa is in Togo, so the volume of shipping through that country is high, as is the rate of illicit goods getting through. Togolese security forces have a unit that receives tips, and it was through this hotline that they learned of two suspicious containers at the port of Lomé headed for Vietnam via Malaysia in January 2014.
Upon seizing the containers, which should have contained cashew nuts, according to the shipping documentation, Togolese security forces found raw logs of teak. Digging deeper, they discovered what turned out to be more than four tons of fresh ivory from more than 500 elephants, valued at approximately $8 million on the international market. So officials apprehended the ringleader, Huu Dinh Khao, and his two local accomplices.
“Having worked with them on the N’Bouke case, the Togolese police now had the investigative skills to find out where the ivory was coming from, who else was involved, process the DNA and isotope testing, and so on,” says Agent Noriko.
A Vietnamese man, left, and his two Togolese accomplices are paraded by Togo police in front of the media at the port of Lomé on January 28, 2014. (AP/Wideworld photo)
The bill of lading listed Dinh, the ringleader, as the owner of the shipping containers. When questioned, he claimed he did not speak French even though he had lived in Togo for more than two years.
“We had already established good working relationships with INTERPOL and AFRICOM, so it was a matter of calling them up and saying, hey, here’s another case we’re working on with the Togolese,” says Agent Noriko. “We contacted the Vietnam Consulate and Embassy, but it was INTERPOL that sent someone who happened to speak Vietnamese to help interrogate the suspect. INTERPOL and AFRICOM also helped the Togolese process the isotope testing and get Dinh’s computers analyzed.” Togolese officials expect to complete this case later this year.
In a press statement on February 6, 2014, Department of State Spokesperson Jen Psaki stated: “Secretary Kerry called Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe today to commend his government on the major strides being made to combat international wildlife trafficking […] Togolese authorities have made multiple seizures of illegal ivory, totaling more than four tons. Individually and collectively, these are the largest seizures of illegal ivory in West Africa’s history. […] Togo’s efforts contribute to the worldwide struggle against illegal wildlife trafficking, and the U.S. continues to partner with Togo in combating this transnational threat.”
Togo Presents Agent Noriko with Top National Honor
|Agent Noriko (left, in white jacket) prepares for the official opening of the newly refurbished training facility in Togo on March 3, 2014. The ceremony was also attended by the Togolese minister of security, U.S. Ambassador to Togo Whitehead, military personnel, and local media. (U.S. Department of State photos)|
Just as her service in Togo came to an end, Togo’s minister of security, on behalf of the president, knighted Agent Noriko with the Chevalier de l’ordre du mono, earning her the title Dame Noriko.
During her two years in Togo, Agent Noriko also helped set up a $1.5 million training program that trained soldiers to fight insurgents in Mali in 2012. When Togo set out to be the first West African Union country to help the Malian government, Congress approved $1.5 million in funding to train and equip them.
“The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) contacted me and asked me to spearhead this training program for 420 Togolese officers to go to Mali in the next three years,” says Agent Noriko. “So I met with Togolese officials here to come up with the best way to allocate this funding. We decided to refurbish a training facility, bring in INL trainers, and launch the program as quickly as possible.”
Agent Noriko managed logistics across multiple entities, secured the shipment of a large volume of equipment, and oversaw the completion of the training center in a short period of time. Since this facility opened, each class of 140 officers receives the United Nations-sanctioned Formed Police Unit training, which covers riot control, crowd control, VIP escort, and protection of bases.
Diplomatic Security Service Director Bill Miller states: “As a world leader in international law enforcement, DS special agents are involved in the whole spectrum of issues touching on global security, including, in this case, wildlife trafficking. Since it has a nexus to transnational crime, I anticipate seeing more of our agents sharing our international law-enforcement expertise in this multi-national effort.”
Agent Noriko (center) and Togo's U.S. Ambassador Robert Whitehead (to Agent Noriko's right) attend an award ceremony on August 19, 2014. On behalf of Togo's president, Togo's minister of security (to Agent Noriko's left) knighted Agent Noriko with the ''Chevalier de l'ordre du mono'' for successfully carrying out important bilateral law-enforcement efforts. (U.S. Department of State photo)