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Conservationists Hail Arrest of Notorious Wildlife Trafficker in Kenya

FILE - Officials display some of the illegal ivory found hidden in freight traveling from Uganda, in Kenya's major port city of Mombasa, Oct. 8, 2013.

Conservationists are lauding the arrest Wednesday in Kenya of alleged wildlife trafficker Abubakar Mansur Mohammed Surur, who also is wanted in the United States.

Kenya authorities, with the help of U.S. officials, arrested Surur in the coastal city of Mombasa.

Philip Muruthi, vice president of species conservation and science at the Africa Wildlife Foundation, said he welcomed the arrest.

"By catching a kingpin, you can actually disrupt the illegal wildlife trade. He is a very dangerous individual who has funding and who is involved in multiple illegalities, and those are the kingpins you really want to catch," Muruthi said. "One of the weaknesses of fighting the illegal wildlife trade is that we don't get to the kingpin. A lot of the arrests are of the smaller guys."

Surur is charged with conspiracy to traffic 190 kilograms of rhino horns and 10 tons of ivory worth more than $7 million. The Kenyan national also is accused of money laundering and distribution of heroin.

Investigators believe Surur is a member of the Kromah network, a smuggling organization that trades in drugs and illegal wildlife products.

The network shipped its goods out of ports in Pemba, Mozambique, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Mombasa.

FILE - A ranger gestures to a rhino after it was killed for its horn by poachers in South Africa's Kruger National Park, Aug. 27, 2014.
FILE - A ranger gestures to a rhino after it was killed for its horn by poachers in South Africa's Kruger National Park, Aug. 27, 2014.

Last year, authorities in Uganda arrested the head of the network, Liberian national Moazu Kromah. In 2017, Kenyan police arrested two other key figures, brothers Ibrahim Akasha and Baktash Akasha. The brothers were extradited to the U.S., where they are now serving long-term jail sentences.

Such high-profile arrests have been made possible by authorities from different countries working together, said Alastair Nelson, who works with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of 500 experts in the fields of human rights, democracy, governance and development issues.

"One of the reasons that we saw this law enforcement success is that we had long term investigations by groups that were mandated to work across different countries and work with different local law enforcement authorities," Nelson said Wednesday in an online discussion. "That was the U.S. DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] with the Akashas, that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the Kromah case and China Anti Smuggling Bureau, and they use long term traditional investigation methods. So they used a lot of human intelligence, they got close to the organized crime groups, but the key is that they had to work with very closely in partnership with trusted national law enforcement authorities."

Corruption and political connections often are blamed for the failure of some African countries to arrest and prosecute high-level figures in the illegal drug and wildlife trades.

Now, the global effort to save Africa's wild animals is yielding fruit, with the Africa Wildlife Foundation showing elephant and rhino populations are on the rise in some parts of the continent.