Two men from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Tuesday pled guilty in federal court to charges of trafficking protected animal products from the DRC into the US.
Herdade Lokua and Jospin Mujangi admitted before the US District Court for the Western District of Washington they had worked with a middleman since November 2019 to coordinate the smuggling of ivory, white rhinoceros horn, and pangolin scales from Kinshasa, DRC to Seattle, Washington. In 2020 and 2021, they sent around 49 pounds of ivory and five pounds of rhinoceros horn to the US by air freight after painting the material black, falsely declaring it as “wood” and mixing it with ebony to avoid suspicion.
Lokua and Mujangi arrived in Seattle in November 2021 to negotiate a deal to smuggle huge amounts of contraband—two tons of ivory and one ton of pangolin scales—via ocean freight but were apprehended by undercover federal agents posing as prospective buyers. The information gained after their arrest led to the seizure of 2,067 pounds of ivory and 75 pounds of pangolin scales in Kinshasa.
The two men were indicted by a federal grand jury on 11 counts relating to wildlife trafficking, including violations of the Lacey Act, on November 3, 2021. The Lacey Act (16 U.S. Code §§3371-3378) is the US’s oldest statute against wildlife trafficking. Introduced in 1900, it defines “wildlife” to include “any part, product, egg or offspring thereof” and prohibits the import, transport and sale of wildlife in violation of any law or treaty of the US. It also prohibits the import of wildlife in a container or package that has not been appropriately tagged and the false labeling or identification of such wildlife.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral treaty that aims to protect endangered species of plants and animals. The US and DRC are both signatories to the CITES, which entered into force in 1975. Notably, the US was the first country to join the CITES.
Appendix I of the CITES lists the species most endangered by extinction: trade in specimens and parts of these species is prohibited except for non-commercial and research purposes. African elephants save those from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe and white rhinoceroses save those from South Africa and Swaziland are listed in Appendix I. All eight pangolin species were to be transferred to Appendix I in early 2017.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the African elephant, white rhinoceros and pangolin in its Red List of Threatened Species. The World Wildlife Fund noted that “criminal networks [had] switched to target African species” from Asian species of pangolins. Rampant poaching for horns has left only two specimens—both female—of the Northern white rhinoceros alive.
The indictment also alleges Lokua and Mujangi bribed authorities in Kinshasa to ship the contraband. Their sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 1.