By John Zodzi
LOME (Reuters) - A major international ivory trafficker believed to have dealt in the tusks of thousands of elephants over a four-decade career has been arrested in Togo following an undercover investigation by wildlife campaigners.
Togolese shopkeeper Emile N'bouke, 58, and a Guinean associate were arrested in two raids on Tuesday and Wednesday in Lome, in the latest in a series of joint operations between activists and police that have netted around 900 traffickers.
Police seized 725 kg of ivory, most of which had been carved into sculptures and figurines.
"It had been noted that tons of ivory are leaving through the port of Lome destined for countries like Indonesia, China and Hong Kong," Kodjo Katanga Yeleneke, an officer with Togo's anti-smuggling and money laundering brigade, said on Friday.
"Investigations are continuing in order to dismantle the rest of the network," he said.
Poaching has risen in recent years across sub-Saharan Africa, where well-armed criminal gangs kill elephants for tusks and rhinos for their horns, then ship them to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
Togo is home to only a handful of elephants, and suspicions that Lome was being used as a transit point for ivory poached elsewhere in the region led a network of wildlife campaigners and environmental activists to launch an investigation.
Working in partnership with Togolese authorities, the network, headed by the Cameroon-based Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), used a hidden camera and recording equipment to build case files for the police.
LAGA's director Ofir Drori did not want to get into the specifics of the case but said in general activists act as agents to infiltrate criminal rings and gain their trust, working their way up the organization and gathering evidence, including receipts.
A similar operation in which LAGA was involved led to the arrest of four cross-border ivory smugglers in Gabon on Friday.
"All the other traffickers were saying (N'bouke) was the boss. And he talked of being active since 1976 with connections in Asia, in the United States and Europe," Drori told Reuters.
N'bouke's business card described him as an ivory carver and expert as well as an importer and exporter. His shop was named the Ivory Rose and its logo contained a pair of elephant tusks.
Present on Friday as police exhibited the seized stocks to journalists, N'bouke admitted to bringing ivory to Lome from Chad. But Drori said he almost certainly sourced ivory from several other countries as well.
"You're talking about more than 100 elephants just with this seizure. But this is just a fraction of what he was responsible for over four decades. You're talking about dozens of thousands of elephants," he said.
Data collected by conservationists shows that killing rates for elephants in Africa have risen dramatically in recent years.
From about 11,500 elephants illegally killed in 2010 in areas observed by the Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants program, estimates for 2011 and 2012 rose to around 17,000.
(Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)