Black market ivory: N’bouke jailed

A photograph of Emile N'bouke taken by investigators shortly after his arrest in August 2013.

By Julian Rademeyer

Emile N’bouke – the ivory carver and shopkeeper referred to as “The Boss” or “Le Patron” by illegal ivory dealers in Togo’s capital Lomé –  has been jailed for 15 months and ordered to pay a fine of US$10,300.

The maximum prison sentence allowed for under Togolose law for ivory trafficking  is just two years.

N’bouke, 58, was arrested in a police sting operation nine months ago. He and two co-defendants, Guinean nationals Djifa Doumbouya and Moussa Cherif, went on trial earlier this month. AFP reported that N’bouke, Doumbouya and Cherif  were each sentenced to two years imprisonment and ordered to pay fines of US$10,300. Nine months of N’bouke’s 24 month sentence was suspended.

Throughout the trial N’bouke denied charges that he was an illegal ivory trafficker. He claimed that the hundreds of kilogrammes of ivory seized by police when they raided his downtown curio shop had been imported long before the ban on international ivory trade came into effect in 1990.

But prosecutors were adamant that N’bouke’s claims were false.  As National Geographic’s Bryan Christy reported they employed some of the world’s most advanced forensic technology to make their case:

“Togolese investigators, assisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had taken samples from N’Bouke’s ivory, which they sent to the U.S. for analysis at two of the world’s most advanced laboratories for forensic analysis of elephant ivory.

“Samuel Wasser, at the University of Washington, provided the Togolese government with a report showing that N’Bouke’s ivory came from a number of sources, including Cameroon and Gabon, two of the hardest hit countries in the current slaughter spreading across Africa. (See: A Powerful New Weapon Against Ivory Smugglers: DNA Testing.)

“Even more damning: radioisotope analysis done by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which showed that N’Bouke’s stockpile included ivory from elephants killed after 1990 and possibly as recently as 2010. (For more see: Cold War Radioactivity Can Date Elephant Ivory.)”

The investigation

A photograph of the inside of N'bouke's curio shop, Rose Ivoire. The image was posted on his Facebook page.

The case against N’bouke began to take shape in early 2013 when Ofir Drori, the director of wildlife crime investigation NGO LAGA, and I went undercover in Lomé to investigate aspects of the illegal trade in ivory. Posing as a wildlife dealer I obtained hidden camera footage of  N’bouke offering to sell ivory and explaining how it could be smuggled out of the country.  (That investigation was later the subject of a documentary by ABC Nightline’s Bill Weir.)

N’bouke initially managed to give investigators the slip, but was finally arrested on 6 August, 2013, following the broadcast of the Nightline documentary. According to a BBC News report, investigators found 700kg of ivory in his shop.

Togo’s Environment Minister Dede Ahoefa Ekoue said at the time that the arrest of N’bouke proved the country was taking the problem of ivory trafficking seriously. “I am proud… that Togo is showing the world that… we are going to continue this fight against the dealers who are destroying our natural resources,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

Togo has emerged in recent years as a key entrepôt for the illegal ivory trade.  In July 2013, customs officials in Hong Kong seized more than two tonnes of elephant tusks worth US$2.2-million hidden in cargo from Togo.

After N’bouke’s arrest, a number of journalists were allowed to question him at police headquarters. He said that his main clients were in China, and he had imported ivory with permits from Chad since 1983, when it was legal to do so. But, he claimed, that since laws had come into effect banning the trade in ivory he had only exported handicrafts made from bones. An Associated Press report, however, quoted N’bouke saying that he had managed to obtain and renew a “special permit” to sell ivory despite Togo’s 2008 ban on trade.

The Environment Minister said N’bouke’s claim about a permit was untrue.

A ‘victim of injustice’ or a criminal?

An ivory carver at work in a backstreet workshop in Togo's capital. Photo: Julian Rademeyer

Speaking to Associated Press after his arrest, N’bouke said that he was a “victim of injustice” in a misguided crackdown and claimed that he had in fact been trying to help Togolese officials identify “the real ivory traffickers” in the country.

“During our last meeting three or four weeks ago, I informed the authorities that most people who work in ivory and who traffic ivory without the right papers are Guineans,” N’bouke said. Both N’bouke’s co-accused were Guinean.

Drori has described N’bouke as the “godfather of ivory trafficking in Togo”. “If you can imagine this activity multiplied by nearly 40 years of work, 40 years of contacts, 40 years of criminal activity, you can imagine that this person alone is in charge of the slaughter of dozens of thousands of elephants.”

Elsewhere he has been called an “old fashioned ivory carver” and trader who made carvings for prime ministers and presidents in 1970s and 1980s before the ban on trade.  He is even said to have presented an ivory carving to Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s visit to Togo in August 1985.

In a statement released on 8 August, 2013, the US State Department commended the Togolese authorities for the raid and said N’bouke’s arrest “represents an important step in protecting valuable African wildlife and investigating criminal organisations”.

According to AFP, the judge who sentenced N’bouke and the others had called on Togolese authorities to revisit the country’s ivory trafficking laws to provide for harsher sentences.

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