LOME, Togo – For more than three decades, Emile N'Bouke operated a small, unmarked shop on the corner of a busy street in downtown Lome that received few customers and kept irregular hours.
Wood sculptures and iron masks could be seen through the barred storefront window, but activists say N'Bouke's real job was serving as "The Boss" of Togo's ivory trafficking trade. And as early as 1976, N'Bouke was presenting himself as an ivory expert and former U.N. consultant who could find loopholes around any international ban after it went into effect.
When authorities arrested him this week, they found some 1,500 pounds of ivory in his possession, a fraction of the inventory he had allegedly moved during decades of illegal trafficking. It was the first such operation in a country that has recently emerged as a main transit point for ivory bound for Asia and other markets.
N'Bouke told The Associated Press on Thursday that he was a "victim of injustice" in a misguided crackdown, claiming he had in fact been trying to help Togolese officials identify "the real ivory traffickers" in the country.
"During our last meeting three or four weeks ago, I informed the authorities that most people who work in ivory and who traffic ivory without the right papers are Guineans," he said.
He said he began trading ivory in 1983, six years before the global ban went into effect, and that all his work had been authorized by a "special permit" he managed to obtain and repeatedly renew.
"You know all work is subject to the law. I've got my permission, my special permit," he said.
Togo's Environment Minister Dede Ekoue said N'Bouke's claim about a permit was untrue.
Known locally as "The Boss" because of his seniority in Togo's ivory trade, N'Bouke's capture could shed considerable light on international ivory networks that have ramped up their operations to match rising demand in recent years, reaching clients in Europe, Asia and the United States, said Ofir Drori, founder of the Last Great Ape Organization that began investigating N'Bouke late last year.
Even without those leads, the arrest removes from the market a man who activists say has played a leading role in devastating Africa's elephant population. According to a report by the United Nations body that regulates the wildlife trade, 2011 was the worst year on record for elephant poaching in Africa.
"Every ivory trafficker we were trying to investigate was leading us back to him," Drori said of N'Bouke. "He is the godfather of ivory trafficking in Togo," Drori said, pointing out that the ivory seized this week amounted to only a fraction of his dealings.
"If you can imagine this activity multiplied by nearly 40 years of work, 40 years of contacts, 40 years of criminal activity, you can imagine that this person alone is in charge of the slaughter of dozens of thousands of elephants," Drori said.
The international ivory trade was banned in 1989, but illicit trading has risen sharply in the past seven years or so, with demand fueled by a rising middle class in China whose members view ivory as a symbol of wealth and status, said Bas Huijbregts, head of the campaign against illegal wildlife trade in Central Africa for the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Researchers have only recently begun to tease out the role played by transit countries, which don't actually provide any of the ivory they export. Togo, for instance, likely receives its ivory from Gabon, northern Republic of Congo and southeastern Cameroon, experts say. From Lome, it is transported out by plane or sea.
Last month, more than two tons of ivory hidden in a cargo container at the port in Lome was seized in Hong Kong, according to Togolese officials. And last December, some 24 tons of ivory sent from Togo was seized in Malaysia.
Ekoue, the environment minister, said Togo was determined to crack down on the trade.
"This activity can no longer prosper because the Togolese government is committed to discouraging further action from criminals who use our territory as a platform," she said.
However, even if the laws are adequately enforced, there's no guarantee they will effectively deter future traffickers. Drori said that despite the extensive case against Ekoue, the maximum prison sentence he can receive on trafficking charges is just one year.
Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.