Two Congolese Men Indicted for Smuggling Over a Ton of Ivory Into U.S.

A pair of Congolese men were arrested in Seattle for attempting to smuggle over a ton of elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns, and pangolin scales into the country, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said Monday.

Herdade Lokua, 23, and Joseph Mujangi, 31, of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, were indicted on 11 federal charges of conspiracy and money laundering.

Additional charges were levied against the pair for violations of the Lacey Act. Signed in 1900, the act makes it unlawful to import or export any wildlife material that was acquired illegally under U.S. or foreign laws.

The pair now face up to a maximum of 20 years in federal prison.

The DOJ stated that Lokua and Mujangi allegedly worked with a middleman in order to smuggle at least four shipments of ivory and other wildlife goods into the United States. The first three packages arrived in summer 2020 and contained 49 pounds of illegal ivory materials.

A fourth package arrived in the United States in May 2021 with an additional five pounds of rhinoceros horn.

Ivory Smuggling Ring
A pair of Congolese men have been arrested in Seattle and charged with smuggling thousands of pounds of ivory into the U.S. Here, ivory tusks can be seen during a raid at the Bangkok airport. Roberto Schmidt/Getty

The pair also allegedly conspired with ocean freighters to smuggle over two tons of ivory into the country. However, the men arrived in Seattle and were arrested by the authorities before such a deal could be made, according to the DOJ.

After the arrests, multiple foreign agencies, including the Congolese authorities, worked with the U.S. Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Seattle to conduct "Operation Kuluna."

As part of the ongoing operation, HSI agents and a Congolese task force were able to seize over 2,000 pounds of ivory and 75 pounds of pangolin scales that the men were allegedly hiding in Kinshasa. The goods were valued at approximately $3.5 million.

The indictment also stated that Lokua and Mujangi used a variety of tricks in order to try and conceal the ivory and horns from the authorities. This includes cutting the horns into smaller pieces and painting them with ebony to pass them off as wood.

Lokua and Mujangi also bribed and paid off shipping authorities in Kinshasa in order to get the materials smuggled onto container ships, the DOJ alleged.

All three species of trafficked animals are listed on the CITES treaty, an international convention signed by nearly 200 countries that protects endangered wildlife from poachers and smugglers.

The African elephant and white rhinoceros have been CITES-protected since the 1970s. All pangolin species were added to CITES in 2017 under the greatest threat level, and The New York Times considers them one of the most trafficked animals in the world.

Additionally, a subspecies of white rhinoceros, the northern white rhinoceros, is critically endangered. Scientists believe it is extinct in the wild, and there are only two of its kind left in captivity.

Both of these rhinos reside in a conservatory in Kenya and are protected by armed guards 24/7. However, both of them are female, meaning the subspecies is unable to reproduce, making it functionally extinct.

The last known male of the northern white rhinoceros passed away in 2018.

Newsweek has reached out to the Office of Homeland Security Investigations for comment.