By Paul Newman
A new report reveals that Chinese-led criminal gangs are conspiring with corrupt Tanzanian officials to traffic huge amounts of ivory, a trade which has caused half of Tanzania’s elephants to be poached in the past five years – even diplomatic visits by high-level Chinese Government delegations have been used to smuggle ivory.
In the major new report Vanishing Point – Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants, released on the eve of a major regional wildlife crime summit in Tanzania, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) details how the country’s elephants are being slaughtered in vast numbers to feed a resurgent ivory trade in China.
In December 2013, an official visit by a Chinese naval task force to Tanzania’s capital city port of Dar es Salaam spurred a major surge in business for ivory traders, with one dealer boasting of making US$50,000 from sales to naval personnel. In addition, a Chinese national was caught trying to enter the port with 81 illegal tusks intended for two mid-ranking Chinese naval officers.
Earlier that year, in March, the visit of a large official delegation accompanying Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tanzania created a boom in illegal ivory sales and caused local prices to double.
Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory in the world and China the largest importer of smuggled tusks. Tanzania’s world famous Selous Reserve has seen its elephant population plunge by 67 per cent in just four years, from 50,000 animals to 13,000. Based on available evidence, Tanzania has lost more elephants to poaching during this period than any other country – 10,000 in 2013 alone, equivalent to 30 a day.
Vanishing Point further reveals how some politicians from Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and well-connected businesspeople use their influence to protect ivory traffickers. In 2013, former Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki named four CCM MPs as involved in elephant poaching and stated: “This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network.”
A year earlier, a secret list of the main culprits behind the crisis was handed to Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete by intelligence sources, containing the names of prominent politicians and businesspeople regarded as untouchable due to links to the CCM; most people on the list have not been investigated further or arrested.
As far back as 2006, EIA investigators were told by Mwenge suppliers that some Chinese Embassy staff were major buyers of their ivory. An official of Tanzania’s wildlife department even offered to sell the investigators tusks from the Government’s ivory storeroom and to put them in touch with a dealer who could provide ivory from the Selous Reserve.
EIA Executive Director Mary Rice said: “This report shows clearly that without a zero tolerance approach, the future of Tanzania’s elephants and its tourism industry are extremely precarious.
“The ivory trade must be disrupted at all levels of criminality, the entire prosecution chain needs to be systemically restructured, corruption rooted out and all stakeholders, including communities exploited by the criminal syndicates and those on the front lines of enforcement, given unequivocal support.
“All trade in ivory, including all domestic sales, must be resolutely banned in China which has failed to comply with CITES ivory controls.”