The U.S. Department of Justice said that two people from the Democratic Republic of Congo were arrested in Edmonds Nov. 3 after arriving in the U.S. to negotiate details of a smuggling operation that included elephant ivory and white rhinoceros horn.
Herdade Lokua, 23, and Jospin Mujangi, 31, of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), were indicted Nov. 4 by a federal grand jury for conspiracy, money laundering, smuggling and Lacey Act violations for trafficking elephant ivory and white rhinoceros horn from DRC to Seattle. The 11-count indictment alleges that Lokua and Mujangi worked with a middleman to smuggle four packages into the United States. In August and September 2020, the defendants sent three shipments containing a total of about 49 pounds of ivory by air freight to Seattle. In May, they sent another package with approximately five pounds of rhinoceros horn. The buyer paid the defendants $14,500 for the ivory and $18,000 for the horn.
To conceal the tusks and horn, the indictment states that Lokua and Mujangi had them cut into smaller pieces which were painted black. They were then mixed with ebony wood to avoid detection by customs authorities. The indictment further alleges that the defendants paid bribes to authorities in Kinshasa in order to ship the merchandise.
According to the indictment, Lokua and Mujangi also sold 55 pounds of pangolin scales to a U.S. buyer but ultimately did not ship them. (According to the World Wildlife Fund website, pangolin are solitary, primarily nocturnal animals easily recognized by their full armor of scales — and are the most trafficked mammal in the world.)
The two suspects discussed sending larger shipments of ivory, rhinoceros horn and pangolin scales by ocean freight containers and described how they could conceal them and launder the payments. On Nov. 2, they arrived in Washington state to negotiate the details of such a deal and were arrested in Edmonds. (Acting Assistant Chief Josh McClure of the Edmonds Police Department said the department wasn’t notified of the arrest so has no details.)
Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced the arrests and indictment Monday. The Office of Homeland Security Investigations in Seattle conducted the investigation. Customs and Border Protection and the Seattle Police Department assisted in arresting the defendants. The investigation in DRC is ongoing.
According to the Justice Department announcement, the Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits, among other things, falsely labeling shipments containing wildlife. The defendants unlawfully listed the shipments as only being worth $50-60 and containing wood samples according to the indictment. The United States, DRC and approximately 181 other countries are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES is an international treaty that restricts trade in species that may be threatened with extinction. CITES has permit requirements for protected wildlife, and the indictment alleges that the defendants did not obtain any of the necessary papers or declarations from DRC or the United States. The CITES treaty has listed the white rhinoceros as a protected species since 1975 and the African elephant since 1977. All species of pangolin were added to the CITES appendix with the greatest level of protection in 2017. All three mammals are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.
If convicted, the defendants face a maximum of 20 years’ imprisonment for the smuggling and money laundering charges and five years for the conspiracy and Lacey Act violations.