Herdade Lokua, 34, and Jospin Mujangi, 32, of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), pleaded guilty in Seattle federal court yesterday to conspiracy and Lacey Act charges. They were charged on November 3, 2021 with 11 counts related to wildlife trafficking from the DRC to Seattle. The court has set the sentencing hearing for November 1.
In pleading guilty, the two defendants admitted that from November 2019 they agreed to smuggle elephant ivory, white rhino horn and pangolin scales into the United States. They worked with a middleman to negotiate sales and coordinate imports to Seattle. Between August and September 2020, Lokua and Mujangi shipped three packages containing approximately 49 pounds of ivory from Kinshasa. They arranged for the ivory to be cut into smaller pieces and painted black; the packages were then falsely labeled as containing wood.
Lokua and Mujangi acknowledged that in June 2021 they sent nearly five pounds of rhino horn to Seattle using a similar pattern. Lokua discussed sending two tons of ivory and one ton of pangolin scales concealed in a shipping container. He said payment would have to be routed through a bank account in China before the money could be accessed in Kinshasa.
Lokua and Mujangi admitted to traveling to Seattle on November 2, 2021 to meet potential buyers who were actually undercover federal agents. After negotiating the details of a large shipment of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales, officers arrested the two men in Edmonds, Washington.
The investigation was part of “Operation Kuluna”, an international operation between the Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Seattle, the DRC government and the US Embassy in Kinshasa. Following the arrests, the DRC task force acted on information provided by HSI-Seattle to seize 2,067 pounds of ivory and 75 pounds of pangolin scales in Kinshasa worth approximately $3.5 millions of dollars, all smuggled goods related to wildlife trafficking.
The Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking law and prohibits, among other things, the mislabeling of shipments containing wildlife. The United States, the DRC and about 181 other countries are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is an international treaty that restricts trade in species that may be threatened with extinction. CITES has permit requirements for protected wildlife, and the indictment alleges that the defendants did not obtain any of the necessary documents or declarations from the DRC or the United States.
The CITES treaty listed the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) as a protected species since 1975 and the African elephant (African loxodanta) since 1977. All pangolin species were added to the CITES appendix with the highest level of protection in 2017. All three mammals are threatened by poaching and habitat loss.
HSI-Seattle conducted the investigation. The government is represented by senior prosecutors Patrick M. Duggan and Ryan C. Connors of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Division of Environment and Natural Resources with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.