LOME, Togo (AP) — Police in Togo have arrested three men accused of conspiring to ship to Vietnam nearly two tons of ivory, representing scores of dead elephants, in part of a broader crackdown on the illicit trade that has plagued the West African nation for decades.
The suspects, a 44-year-old Vietnamese man and his two Togolese accomplices, were paraded before reporters Tuesday morning by police, who said they were still investigating where the ivory came from.
Lt. Pierre Awi said the ivory was hidden in a container at Lome port bound for Vietnam. "The container was loaded with wood that was serving as a cover for a large quantity of ivory in bags underneath," he said.
He said 3,700 pounds (1,680 kilograms) of ivory was seized. Although there is wide variation depending on the type and size of elephant, conservationists say the average tusk weighs about eight pounds (3.6 kilograms), meaning the seizure represents around 230 elephants.
Togo has long operated as a transit country for ivory from Central Africa before it is shipped to Asia, where rising demand has fueled a boom in illicit trading over the past several years. The international ivory trade was banned in 1989.
Last August Togo announced the arrest of a man known locally as "The Boss" of the country's ivory trade, whom activists blame for the slaughter of thousands of elephants. That man, Emile N'Bouke, was found with 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) of ivory in his possession. Investigators said that haul represented only a fraction of the ivory he is accused of moving through Togo since the 1970s.
N'Bouke has not been brought to trial and officials were not available Tuesday to confirm whether he had been formally charged. He remains jailed in a facility for high-profile suspects in Lome. He has told The Associated Press he is a "victim of injustice" in a misguided crackdown.
Togolese law potentially allows for prison sentences of up to five years for ivory trafficking, said Ofir Drori, founder of the Last Great Ape Organization that began investigating N'Bouke in 2012.
The ivory seized from N'Bouke potentially came from "dozens of countries," Drori said. Samples have been sent to the United States for tests to determine their origin.
The investigation of N'Bouke's activity has led to about a dozen arrests since last August, Drori said, commending Togolese authorities for excellent work in cracking down on ivory networks.
However, multiple transit countries for ivory exist in West Africa, meaning the volume of trade has not necessarily decreased by much even with the recent arrests, Drori said.
"Right now in Togo there is far less trade than there was before, but that's not necessarily a great thing if criminal activity is just shifting to neighboring countries," he said.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.