By Martin Fletcher
It takes your eyes, and your brain, a moment to adjust as you move from the dazzling Tanzanian sun into the dusty, dimly lit warehouse.
Workers stand by a pile of elephant tusks, systematically weighing each one on a large red Avery scale.
Behind them, rows of tall metal shelves recede into the gloom. They are stacked solid with tusks, each pair the sole remnant of a once-magnificent elephant.
More tusks lie in sacks on the concrete floor. It is an appalling, sickening sight.
This is the world’s largest ivory stockpile. More than 34,000 tusks weighing roughly 125 tons are stored in the warehouse behind the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism in Dar es Salaam. They would be worth about £150 million on China’s black market.
Some were taken from elephants that died naturally or turned rogue. Many thousands were seized from poachers or their middlemen and cannot be sold because international trade in ivory is banned.
They are black, brown and dirty white. A few bear the marks of the machetes used to hack them from the elephants. Others were sawn off.
The biggest is nearly 7ft long, weighs 191 lb and takes three people to lift. The shortest measure scarcely a foot and were ripped from babies – testimony to the indiscriminate slaughter of the poachers who kill 30 Tanzanian elephants a day and have destroyed half the country’s 110,000 elephants since 2009.
The stockpile is a shrine to human greed. Its only redeeming feature is that the tusks were intercepted before they were smuggled to Asia, but the amount of ivory that passes undetected though Tanzania’s ports is far greater.
The country is easily the world’s biggest exporter of this illicit ‘white gold’.
The Mail on Sunday was given exclusive access to the warehouse after publishing an article, just before last month’s London summit on the illegal wildlife trade, that asked how the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister could shake the hand of Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian leader who has presided over such a slaughter.
We reported that many politicians, officials and well-connected businessmen were active accomplices in the illegal ivory trade, and that there was corruption from top to bottom.
The article caused uproar in Tanzania. A well-placed source said President Kikwete was ‘hopping mad’.
His office denounced the article as ‘malicious, preposterous and contemptible’. His government consulted British public relations advisers.
But the article had a dramatic effect. Before leaving for the London summit, Mr Kikwete summoned senior wildlife officials, tearing up his prepared notes as he angrily demanded that they do better.
Then, at the summit, he astounded the conservation world by announcing that Tanzania would put its vast stockpile ‘beyond economic use’ and support a continued ban on international trade in ivory. That was an astonishing U-turn.
Three times in eight years Tanzania had unsuccessfully sought approval from the 180-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to sell its stockpile – despite overwhelming evidence that one-off sales merely fuel China’s appetite for ivory.
‘The article shamed the president in front of the world,’ said one source.
‘He really had to come and say something concrete at the summit,’ said another.
There was one more surprise. Lazaro Nyalandu, the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, invited The Mail on Sunday to Tanzania. ‘We have nothing to hide,’ he said.
My visit included a trip to the Selous game reserve, a spectacularly beautiful wilderness and Unesco World Heritage Site double the size of Wales, where the shocking scale of Tanzania’s poaching frenzy became clear.
Selous had 70,000 elephants in 2006. Barely 13,000 survive. At the peak of the onslaught rotting carcasses defiled the reserve’s woodlands, savannahs and swamps, and tourists could hear shooting from their lodges.
For the better part of two days, Benson Kibonde, the reserve’s chief warden, and I jolted along in a Toyota Land Cruiser, scattering giraffes and impalas, zebras and warthogs, baboons and waterbuck. Countless hippos wallowed in the swollen brown waters of the Rufiji river.
My visit coincided with the rainy season, so the elephants had wandered far from their usual watering holes, but during those two days we saw just one, a bull who retreated into the bush. Only from the air did we spot more – three here, six there – sad remnants of once abundant herds.
Even carcasses are becoming rarer as poachers seek richer pickings elsewhere in Tanzania.
The only one we saw was a month old – a scattering of hefty white bones picked clean by hyenas and jackals. That is what Selous has become: an elephant graveyard.
‘It’s a tragedy,’ Mr Kibonde said. Mr Nyalandu is young, engaging, smartly dressed and US-educated. He visits the University of Buckingham one weekend a month to pursue a Master’s degree in international relations. He is also a good talker.
He acknowledged that corruption was ‘huge’ and that The Mail on Sunday article ‘really got a lot of people thinking’.
He said poaching was the country’s ‘number one national security problem’ and insisted the president was determined to defeat it.
Not so long ago the Tanzanian government denied there was even a problem. Mr Nyalandu declared that Operation Tokomeza, a very effective military-led crackdown on poachers which was suspended after a month last autumn because of human rights abuses, would soon be relaunched with strict safeguards. More....