By Alvar Mwakyusa
As the fight against illegal wildlife trade gains momentum globally, stakeholders' opinions in Tanzania are divided on whether to destroy or preserve the country's 112 tonnes stockpile of elephant tusks stored in the "ivory room" at the premises of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism along Nyerere Road in Dar es Salaam.
Just recently, President Jakaya Kikwete attended and gave a speech at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in which he appealed to the international community to impose a total ban on trade of ivory and rhino horns to protect the wildlife from extinction.
Describing the London conference as a historic opportunity to take a landmark decision to save elephants and rhinos, the Head of State said he was optimistic the international community would pronounce itself on supporting developing nations in the war against poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
There have been varying figures of the stockpile of ivory that the country has but various sources have confirmed that they are well over 100 tonnes, with a combined value of about US $50 million dollars (about (80bn/-).
The tusks are those that have been impounded from illegal ivory traders and poachers as well as those of elephants which died on natural causes. "The government will state its position on what to do with the stockpile.
As you know the idea of selling the tusks is out of question," President Jakaya Kikwete responded while responding to a question from the 'Daily News' at the Hyatt Regency Hotel Churchill in London.
Tanzania has in the past unsuccessfully tried to seek permission from the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species and Fauna (CITES) to sell off the stockpile but lately dropped the plans as a measure to ensure trade in ivory and rhino horns is totally banned to protect wildlife.
Mr Kikwete went on to note that Tanzania will put itself in an "awkward position" in the international community if it insisted on selling the ivory while at the same time it has been appealing for total ban on the trade.
Sources within the government have, however, hinted that it was mostly likely that the stockpile would be destroyed since preserving it was costly.
"Many countries including China and United States have in the past destroyed impounded stockpile and Tanzania is mostly likely to do the same," the sources confided to the 'Daily News'.
The Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Land, Natural Resources and Environment Mr James Lembeli (Kahama-CCM) was, however, of the view that the trophies should be preserved.
"We are yet to discuss this matter in the parliamentary committee but in my opinion we should preserve the ivory as a national treasure," Mr Lembeli noted.
In an interview with 'Daily News' recently, the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Mr Lazaro Nyalandu said the government had initiated a debate to involve various stakeholders including the parliamentary committee on what to do with the stockpile.
"The debate will guide us on whether to destroy or preserve the stockpile, initial plans to request CITES to sell the stock have been shelved," Mr Nyalandu said.
The Minister pointed out that the decision to abandon the bid follows the signing of the Clinton Global Initiative last year on anti-poaching drive in US as well as other UN conventions by President Jakaya Kikwete.
Countries that signed the initiative have agreed to set out a ten-year moratorium to stop the killing, trafficking and demand of ivory to check the dwindling population of wildlife.
"If after ten years the population of the animals will increase to the desired number then it can be decided otherwise," Mr Nyalandu told the 'Daily News' during the interview.
The move is tailored to check the dwindling population of elephants. According to the minister, a census carried out in the Selous Game Reserve and Mikumi National Park shows that the two wildlife sanctuaries have a combined population of 13,084 elephants.
Ruaha National Park has 20,000 elephants. Mr Nyalandu admitted, however, that Tanzania's elephant population, particularly in the Selous Game Reserve, decreased more than 60 per cent between 2009 and 2013.
"The Selous Game Reserve had 43,000 elephants in 2009 but the number has now dropped by 66 per cent," the minister said, noting further that the country will conduct a further census in other national parks whose results will be made available to the public.
As of December last year the country apprehended 320 suspects in connection with poaching and illegal trade in wildlife. The suspects included Europeans, Chinese and Tanzanians who are now facing judicial proceedings.
"During the period we managed to impound 12.2 tonnes of elephant tusks. At the same time we lost 25 game warders who got killed while battling poachers," he said. Furthermore, of all the 19.7 tonnes of ivory impounded globally over the past three years, 12.2 tonnes were impounded by Tanzanian authorities.
In his address at the London conference, President Kikwete said the population of jumbos in Tanzania has drastically dropped since independence due to poaching.
At independence in 1961, their population stood at 350,000 but due to poaching in national parks and game reserves in the 1970's and 1980's, the number dropped to 55,000 by the year 1987.
Adding; "Faced with such unprecedented situation the government then deployed the Tanzanian military (during an operation code-named Operation Uhai) to fight poachers and protect the elephants.
This intervention helped to stem the rot. It reversed the trend. Complimented by the global ban on ivory trade imposed by CITES at that time, poaching of elephants in 1989 was no longer a problem as it used to be. And as a result, population of elephants started increasing and peaked 110,000 by the year 2009, according to President Kikwete.
The London meeting, which was organized by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince Charles, drew participants from about 50 countries globally and was also attended by Heads of State from Gabon, Botswana and Chad.
In his address at the meeting, Mr Kikwete expressed concerns that starting the year 2009, poaching of elephants started to increase due to the re-emergence of illegal ivory trade.
It was against this backdrop that the government conducted various operations namely "Operation Kipepeo" in 2010 and the recently suspended "Operation Tokomeza" to clamp down on poachers.
He thus appealed to the international community to extend a helping hand in stopping the trade of ivory and rhino horn in the world in order to protect the wild animals from extinction.
"If this (total ban on ivory and rhino horn trade) is done, elephants and rhinos will be safe. There will be no demand for ivory and horns and thus no enticement to kill an elephant or rhino.
"When CITES banned ivory trade in 1989 it helped the recovery of elephant population. I believe if the trade is banned today the effect will be the same and many lives of elephants and rhinos will be saved," Mr Kikwete said.
He said the government was now organizing financial and logistical requirements to re-launch Operation Tokomeza which was suspended in November, last year due to reports of human rights abuses during its implementation.
On the same occasion, Prince Charles (of Wales) urged governments to attack demand for illegal wildlife products and follow the money to seize the "ill-gotten gains" from organized gangs threatening the annihilation of endangered species.
Prince Charles, who has been instrumental in conservation activities globally, warned that the scale of the poaching crisis had reached "unimaginable heights".
Flanked by his sons, Prince William (Duke of Cambridge) and Prince Harry, he praised the leaders and foreign government ministers for meeting at Lancaster House to discuss the fate of the wildlife.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)'s Administrator Helen Clark noted of how the agency had supported the Tanzanian government with formulation of a national strategy aimed at eradicating elephant poaching and trafficking.
"Governments have a key responsibility in leading anti-poaching and trafficking initiatives through strong intra- government coordination. "The UNDP appreciates the efforts by the government of Tanzania in launching Operation Tokomeza.
Ms Clark said the UNDP now encourages the government of Tanzania to ensure that the second phase of the operation adheres to human rights norms and standards.