Police in Togo have arrested three men accused of conspiring to ship more than 1.5 tonnes of ivory to Vietnam in part of a broader crackdown on the illicit trade that has plagued the West African nation for decades.
The suspects, a Vietnamese man, 44, and two Togolese accomplices, were paraded before reporters on Tuesday morning by police, who said they were still investigating the source of the ivory.
Lieutenant Pierre Awi said the ivory was hidden in a container at Lome port bound for Vietnam. "The container was loaded with wood that was serving as a cover for a large quantity of ivory in bags underneath," he said.
He said 1.68 tonnes of ivory was seized. Although there is wide variation depending on the type and size of elephant, conservationists say the average tusk weighs about 3.6kg, meaning the seizure could represent about 230 elephants.
Togo has long operated as a transit country for ivory from Central Africa before it is shipped to Asia, where rising demand has fuelled a boom in illicit trading over the past several years. The international ivory trade was banned in 1989.
Last August, Togo announced the arrest of a man known as "The Boss" of the country's ivory trade, whom activists blame for the slaughter of thousands of elephants. That man, Emile N'Bouke, was found with 680kg of ivory in his possession. Investigators said that haul represented only a fraction of the ivory he has been s accused of moving through Togo since the 1970s.
N'Bouke has not been brought to trial and officials were not available on Tuesday to confirm whether he had been formally charged. Togolese law potentially allowed for prison sentences of up to five years for ivory trafficking, said Ofir Drori, founder of the Last Great Ape Organisation that began investigating N'Bouke in 2012.
The ivory seized from N'Bouke potentially came from "dozens of countries," Drori said. Samples have been sent to the United States for tests to determine their origin.
The investigation of N'Bouke's activity had led to about a dozen arrests since last August, Drori said, commending Togolese authorities for excellent work in cracking down on ivory networks.