The four suspects being held in New York on drug-trafficking charges after extradition from Kenya are also thought to be heavily involved in the ivory trade, according to US-based investigators.
Baktash and Ibrahim Akasha, brothers and Kenyan nationals, were arrested in Mombasa and flown to New York on January 30 along with Indian citizen Vijaygiri Goswami and Gulam Hussein, a Pakistani.
The four are accused of conspiring to ship 98 kilogrammes of heroin to the US from Kenya. They appeared in federal court in Manhattan on Friday in shackles and prison uniforms.
If convicted, the four alleged kingpins of the so-called Akasha Organisation could be sentenced to life imprisonment in the US.
The Akasha brothers and Mr Goswami and Mr Hussein are also heavily involved in ivory smuggling, says Gretchen Peters, the head of a US company that helps governments fight transnational crime.
Federal prosecutors in New York have not brought ivory-related charges against the four because shipping ivory from Africa to Asia does not constitute a violation of US law, Ms Peters said.
But “it is clear that the Akashas were at the top of a regional ecosystem that’s moving ivory as well as drugs and weapons on and off the continent,” Ms Peters, director of the Satao Project, told the Nation.
Her Washington-based company works with governments and NGOs in seeking to stem poaching and the consequent smuggling of tusks.
Ms Peters said her allegation linking the Akasha Organisation to the ivory trade is based on “dozens of sources, including law enforcement investigators.”
The Satao Project has also analysed shipping and phone records related to seizures of ivory and narcotics that show the Akashas to be “big players in the ivory trade,” Ms Peters added.
“The arrest of the Akashas is definitely going to have a disruptive effect on the ivory market,” she said.
The Satao Project is named in memory of one of the world’s biggest elephants whose tusks almost touched the ground. Satao, beloved by visitors to Tsavo East National Park, was killed by a poacher’s poisoned arrow in 2014.
INVOLVED IN IVORY TRADE
Ms Peters’ comments are echoed by a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official quoted in a February 9 online posting by the London-based Economist magazine.
“We know the Akasha family is involved with the ivory trade,” DEA Special Agent Thomas Cindric told The Economist.
“We have recorded conversations where they talk about ivory. We had undercover meetings where they talked about being involved in ivory.”
“They’re like the mafia in the US — they’re multifaceted,” Mr Cindric added. “These guys are drug and ivory traffickers. And the smuggling routes for ivory are the same as the smuggling routes for drugs.”
Mr Cindric declined a Sunday Nation request for an interview.
The Economist reported that the DEA agent’s claim is supported by a transcript of a recorded conversation said to have taken place between Ibrahim Akasha and a DEA source in April 2014.
“I have ivory here from Botswana, from Mozambique, from all over,” Mr Akasha is quoted as saying in the transcript that was made available to The Economist. “I have a lot here and it sells.”
The Economist reported that the authenticity of the recording has been confirmed by Mr Cindric. Ivory from tusks of elephants poached in Africa sells for about $1100 per kilogramme in Asia, The Economist said.
The magazine added that “the Kenyan port of Mombasa is the exit point of choice” for smuggled ivory.
Heroin from Afghanistan is unloaded from dhows and cargo ships in Mombasa, and then broken into smaller packages that move to Europe by air from Kenya and Tanzania, The Economist reported.