Tanzanian authorities claim they have arrested a kingpin of the illegal ivory trade—an elderly Chinese woman that has been living in Dar es Salaam since the 1970s, working as a translator, restaurant owner, and pepper farm owner.
Tanzania’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit had been tracking Yang Fenglan, 66, for the past year before closing in on her this week. She has been accused of smuggling 706 elephant tusks, or 2.1 tons of ivory worth $2.5 million, from Tanzania between 2000 and May 2014. Authorities caught her after a car chase through part of Dar es Salaam. If convicted, she faces up to 30 years in prison.
Chinese nationals in Africa have long been suspected for their involvement in the poaching industry. China, where ivory and other contraband are used in traditional Chinese medicine or as decorative status symbols, is believed to be the world’s largest ivory consumer.
But few cases have connected the illegal trade to the upper echelons of the Chinese business and diplomatic community in Africa. Yang, who Tanzanian authorities have now taken to calling the “queen of ivory,” first came to Tanzania as a translator during the building of the Tazara railway between Tanzania and Zambia, one of the first and largest Chinese projects on the continent when China first began courting the region in hopes of spreading its socialist ideology.
Since then, Yang has helped Chinese companies set up in Tanzania as well as provide help to Tanzania’s ambassador to China on trade missions, according to an interview she gave to the China Daily last year. She is also the secretary-general of the Tanzania China-Africa Business Council.
Beijing is likely to be embarrassed by the incident. The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency claimed in a report last year that staff at the Chinese embassy in Tanzania had been buying illegal ivory, some of which they said was smuggled out of country on the plane of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s during a state visit in 2013.
China has said it has “consistently” opposed poaching and has been cracking down the black market for ivory. In other cases where Chinese nationals in Africa have been charged, the Chinese embassy has claimed that it cannot intercede on their behalf.
A representative at the Chinese embassy in Dar es Salaam told Quartz he could not talk about the case and calls to another number went unanswered.