Image: USFWS Mountain Prairie, Wikimedia Commons

The sentencing of large-scale ivory smuggler Feisal Mohamed Ali led a journalist to study the surprising relationship between poaching gangs, highlighted by drugs, corruption, and mafia-like activities.

Ali was convicted of ivory possession in July 2016 in one of the most high-profile cases of an ivory smuggler in history. His 20-year sentence in wake of connections to the larger Akasha network surprised wildlife activists and conversationists — in a good way. 

“Every Kenyan will tell you: what’s supposed to happen is that if you belong to a strong syndicate, you’re out,” stated wildlife activist Ofir Drori to the Guardian.

Gretchen Peters, a former foreign correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is most interested in the gang-like interactions and other criminal activities presented by syndicates behind wildlife crime. Her fascination and subsequent research led her to discover another facet of the story: government corruption.

Image: USFWS Mountain Prairie, Wikimedia Commons

“If there’s a network that is moving illegal goods from one country to another, there are inevitably government officials involved, protecting them or looking the other way,” she says. “It is impossible for that not to be happening,” she explains.

Intensive study of ivory supply chains led to evidence that these syndicates are also involved in other forms of trafficking, including drugs and guns. The Akasha network is suspected of maintaining a large heroin operation in addition to their ivory trade. Paper trails and phone records corroborate a huge network of members, including government officials. Peters has surmised to have connected 13 large ivory seizures since 2013 to the Akasha network.

“They’re like the mafia in the United States,” stated DEA special agent Tommy Cindric, who led the Akasha investigation, to the Guardian. “You have a family that is a criminal organisation, they’re not just into drugs, they’re multi-faceted and ivory is just one of their money-making products.”