updated 11/17/2008 12:37:55 PM ET 2008-11-17T17:37:55

An undercover investigation of the illegal wildlife trade in five African nations led to the seizure of about a ton of ivory along with hippo teeth and cheetah, leopard and python skins, the Kenya Wildlife Service said Monday.

A four-month investigation coordinated by Interpol, an international police association based in Lyon, France, led to the arrest of 57 suspects in the Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, the Kenyan conservation agency said in a statement. Three of the suspects are Chinese nationals.

Undercover agents tracked suspects and illegal products to local ivory markets, airports, border crossings and smuggling points, the Wildlife Service said.

The operation, which ended Saturday, was a blessing for countries whose elephant populations “have declined tremendously over the years,” Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng’etich said.

“Co-operation among countries in East, West and Southern Africa against wildlife crime has set an inspired example,” said Giuliano Zaccardelli, an Interpol program director. “Similar operations could also be conducted in Asia, the Americas and in any other region where criminal interests, including trafficking in illegal wildlife products, are common.”

In one case, when Kenya Wildlife Service officers tried to arrest a Kenyan and a Tanzanian man found with two pieces of ivory weighing 29 pounds, the men resisted and a wildlife officer fired in self-defense, grazing one of the suspects in the head.

In another case, a suspect who had been arrested escaped in the darkness. In two separate instances, officials caught suspected smugglers transporting several pieces of elephant tusks on motorbikes.

The elephant populations of many African countries were being decimated until the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the ivory trade in 1989. Since then the elephant population of Kenya, for example, has grown from 16,000 to 27,000. But that is far fewer than the estimated 167,000 elephants that lived in Kenya in 1973.

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