Forensic Technology Helps Case Against West African Ivory Dealer Accused as a Trafficker

DNA and radioisotope analysis help close ivory smuggling's favorite loophole.

Three men stand next to a haul of ivory tusks seized by security forces at the port of Lomé in Togo. The ivory was ready to be shipped to Vietnam.


Prosecutors in the tiny West African country of Togo employed some of the world's most advanced forensic technology in making their case against ivory shop owner Edouodji Emile N'Bouke.

N'Bouke, 64, had operated Rose Ivoire in downtown Lomé since the 1970s. But in August 2013, investigators raided his store and home, seizing 1,540 pounds of ivory and charging him with violating Togo's environmental and forestry laws, including a 2008 statute that prosecutors say bans all ivory trade in Togo.

In a fiery hearing that packed the capital courthouse and echoed from loudspeakers onto the street last week, N'Bouke rejected charges that he was an illegal ivory trafficker.

His ivory, he said, had come almost exclusively from Chad, with whose former president he said he'd had a long relationship. All of it was old, N'Bouke insisted, imported long before a global ban on international ivory trade went into effect in 1990.

Not true, replied the prosecutor, who insisted that N'Bouke's ivory was from multiple countries and was new.

Referred to as "Le Patron" by locals for his dominance as Togo's chief ivory dealer, N'Bouke is in many ways a relic of an age when ivory dealing was openly conducted across Africa, and the world.

But that is changing in such countries as Kenya and Tanzania where ivory dealing is forbidden, and in the United States, which has recently taken steps to shut down its own domestic ivory market.

Crackdown in Togo

In Togo, meanwhile, the Office Against Illegal Trafficking and Money Laundering seized roughly four tons of ivory—all connected to a single Vietnamese shipper—in January, the largest post-ban seizure of illegal ivory in African history.

Earlier this year a Togolese shipping agent connected to a six-ton ivory shipment to Malaysia was sentenced to two years in prison and given an astounding $12 million fine.

And in February, Togo's president, Faure Gnassingbé, took the unusual step of publishing a call to the world to join Togo in its fight against ivory trafficking.

"Evidence shows that illegal ivory trade is linked to other criminal networks, such as human and drug trafficking as well as terrorism," he wrote in the Independent newspaper.

Togo's efforts to prosecute its international ivory trafficker are all the more unusual because none of the large-scale ivory moving through the country is believed to be from its native elephants.

Togo has almost no elephants of its own. Locally, officials estimate that the country has fewer than 150, but the internationally recognized number is only four.

An African pygmy elephant in Gabon raises its trunk and vocalizes.


Forensic Evidence

The prosecution used scientific evidence to bolster its case that N'Bouke was lying about the age of his ivory and its source.

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.)

N'Bouke had one final defense: If what I did was illegal, why did Togo's director of wildlife and hunting not stop me?

N'Bouke alleged that, instead of closing him down, Kotchikpa Okoumassou had recently demanded payments from N'Bouke and had seized 13 pieces of ivory from him without offering a receipt. Okoumassou, who was seated in the audience, was not asked by the court to respond.

The prosecutor in the N'Bouke trial case asked for the maximum penalty allowable under Togolese law: two years. The court's verdict is scheduled for June 11.

Trafficking experts are watching the N'Bouke case in hopes a conviction will send ripples across the region.

"N'Bouke's arrest will lead to understanding the route of this traffic in Africa," said Fabrice Ebeh, head of ANCE Togo, an NGO that helps support Togo's enforcement efforts. "And we hope the arrest of other traffickers in Africa and the whole world."