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ICE arrests 6 defendants in an African elephant ivory smuggling conspiracy operation through JFK International Airport

NEW YORK, N.Y. - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) today arrested six defendants, two in New York, two in New Jersey, one in Virginia, and one in Texas for conspiring to smuggle the ivory of African elephants from Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Uganda into the U.S. The arrests were the result of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) joint investigation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. A criminal complaint charging the defendants was unsealed in Brooklyn federal court.
The charges in the complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The defendants arrested in the New York City metropolitan area had their initial appearances December 3, before United States Magistrate Judge Robert M. Levy, at the U.S. Courthouse in Brooklyn.

The charges were announced by Benton J. Campbell, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Thomas J. Healy, Special Agent-in-Charge, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Peter J. Smith, Special Agent-in-Charge for ICE's New York Office of Investigations.

As set forth in the complaint, illegal trade in African elephant ivory is the major cause of the continuing decline of elephant populations in Africa. Importation of ivory into the United States has been criminalized since 1976 when the United States became a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Since then, Congress has passed the African Elephant Conservation Act, which prohibits importation of raw or worked ivory that was exported from an ivory producing country in violation of that country's laws.

The complaint alleges that defendant Kemo Sylla and Seidou Mfomboutmoun paid one trafficker $15,000 to courier a shipment of ivory from Cameroon into the United States. However, most of the defendants' ivory was sent, via parcel, through JFK International Airport, accompanied by fraudulent shipping and customs documents. Since March 2006, the defendants have caused at least eight shipments to be made into New York, falsely claiming that they contained "African Wooden Handicraft" or "Wooden Statues." When Wildlife and Customs inspectors examined these shipments, however, they discovered ivory coated with clay and resin-like substances to disguise the ivory as wooden musical instruments, statues, and snakes. Seized ivory from just one shipment was appraised at a market price of $165,000.

As part of the investigation, several shipments were delivered under the surveillance of federal agents. Agents followed these shipments to various locations in the New York City area and elsewhere. On March 21, 2008, agents traveled to an address on West 147th Street in Manhattan and seized one shipment and subsequently forfeited it to the government. Many of the shipments were brought to a storage facility in the Chelsea area of Manhattan frequented by African art dealers and collectors. The complaint details how - using surveillance, controlled deliveries, undercover purchases, shipping records, phone records, and bank records - agents discovered how the defendants obtained ivory from Africa for resale at African art shows and to private purchasers around the country. During one undercover purchase, Bandjan Sidime commented that it was very difficult to bring ivory into the United States, but quite easy to sell it at high prices, comparing ivory to diamonds and gold.

"We have lifted the lid on an ivory smuggling network that exploits endangered species for lucrative profits," said ICE Special Agent-in-Charge Smith. "The arrests today send a clear message to poachers and ivory smugglers that ICE and its federal law enforcement partners are focused on putting them out of business."

Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent-in-Charge Healy stated, "The continuing illegal ivory trade places pressure on the survival of an endangered species and undermines decades worth of efforts to conserve African elephants. Joint enforcement efforts, such as those typified by this case, help curb the slaughter of elephants in Africa by holding those who would profit from ivory trafficking accountable."

"The defendants plundered precious natural resources for personal profit," stated United States Attorney Campbell. "Their illegal trade threatens the continued existence of an endangered species, and will not be tolerated. We commend the agents and inspectors of the Fish and Wildlife Service and ICE for their outstanding efforts in leading the investigation and thank the officers of Customs and Border Protection for their assistance."

The maximum term of imprisonment for any defendant convicted of smuggling is 20 years.

The government's case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Patrick Sean Sinclair and Zainab Ahmad.

The Defendants:
Kemo Sylla, 32, arrested in New Jersey
Seidou Mfomboutmoun, 35, arrested New Jersey
Mamadi Doumbouya, 39, arrested in New York
Bandjan Sidime, 36, arrested in New York
Drissa Diane, 43, arrested in Virginia
Mamadou Kone, 43, arrested in Texas