Florence Majani, Mail and Guardian
08 Aug 2013
Government research shows that 30 elephants are slaughtered a day by poachers in the country.
Ever more of them are going to the grave – and their deaths are haunting the Tanzanian economy.
They are Tanzania’s elephants, the second-largest national herd in Africa, after Botswana. There are 70 000 of them, mainly concentrated in the world’s largest game park and Unesco World Heritage Site, the Selous Game Reserve, and in the Serengeti, Katavi, Enduimet and Ugalla reserves.
According to the government’s Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, Tanzania loses 30 elephants a day to poachers. Total numbers are now less than a third of what they were in the 1960s.
“At the end of the year, you’re talking about 10 000 elephants killed,” says James Lembeli, chairperson of Parliament’s natural resources committee and a former parks official. “Move around this country where you have populations of elephants: carcasses everywhere.”
In 2011, more than 65% of the carcasses encountered on patrols in Selous had been killed by poachers.
On his visit to Tanzania last month, United States President Barack Obama pledged $10-million to curb the illegal ivory trade. He called for the formation of a dedicated Cabinet committee to develop a national strategy on the issue within six months.
A 2011 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) report indicates that, since 2009, most illegal ivory has come from Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa. Last year, it reported that most ivory consignments left through the Indian Ocean seaports of Tanzania and Kenya. The statistics also show that Kenya and Tanzania together accounted for 16 of the 34 large-scale ivory seizures recorded from 2009 through 2011.
The banning of the ivory trade in 1990 under the Cites led to a temporary drop in poaching after the holocaust of the preceding decade. But since sales by the Southern African countries resumed in the early 2000s and China was designated an approved purchaser, there has been a massive jump in the killing of elephants, amid evidence that the Far East-based ivory syndicates are back in business.
Last year, the New York Times reported a 70% upsurge in the poaching of African elephants. In 2011 alone, there were 14 large-scale ivory seizures – a double-digit figure for the first time in 23 years, when Elephant Trade Information Site records were first compiled. They totalled an estimated 24.3 tonnes, more than in any previous year.
In Tanzania, ivory smuggling involves an extensive secret criminal network known to include politicians, well-known businessmen, army officers, rangers and wildlife police. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, poachers enter the reserves for about two weeks at a time, killing between 10 and 15 elephants on each trip. They generally carry sophisticated assault rifles sold to them by dealers from war-torn neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Somalia.
The ivory is then buried at remote locations on the edge of the reserves until it is sold to traders, often retired army, police and government officials, usually from Dar es Salaam. The traders may also provide the poachers with weapons.
The transactions take place in villages that have become known trading hot spots. They include Mloka, north of the Selous; Chumo in the centre of the reserve; and Liwale in southern Tanzania. The town of Somanga is a key transit point on the road from Lindi in southern Tanzania to the coast.
A villager from Lindi told ama-Bhungane that poaching and the ivory trade are flourishing in the area, with constant demand from buyers in Dar es Salaam. The nearby villages of Chumo, Chapita, Kinjumbi and Rutambi are also said to be hot spots.
The Tanzania Elephant Protection Society reports that some of the gangs consist of poachers who have travelled from countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Burundi.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, poaching generally takes place in the rainy season, between June and September, when the reserves are mainly closed to tourists.
The traders stay in local hotels or guest houses while completing the deals and pay between 25000 Tanzanian shillings (Tsh) (R158) and Tsh45 000 a kilogram.
The ivory is transported in small consignments on public buses and even in government vehicles, which are not searched at police check points.
It is then sold on to the smuggling syndicates, though a small quantity finds its way to Mwenge market in Dar es Salaam, where it is possible to buy both crafted and raw ivory products.
Raw ivory tusks are usually stashed on the roofs of shacks or at other nearby locations.
A kilogram of African elephant ivory has a current world black market price of about $2 200.
A 2103 report by the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society (Teps), a nongovernmental organisation, says that the Dar es Salaam port is a major transit point for tusks bound for China, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.
The traffic is allegedly facilitated by corrupt officials in the taxation and clearing departments.
Significantly, most seizures have not taken place in Tanzania, but at ports of entry in the Far East. Most of the ivory finds its way to manufacturers, where it is fashioned into chopsticks, jewellery, ornaments, hair accessories and other items.
The Tanzania Elephant Protection Society report also points a finger at China, the top investor in Tanzania, warning: “Tanzania’s partnership with China is of great benefit to the country’s economy and development, but it must not be at the expense of Tanzania’s vital natural resources and tourist industry.”
The signs are that the trafficking of Tanzanian ivory continues to escalate.
• On March 2 and 5 last year, two ships from Dar es Salaam arrived in Manila in the Philippines. When the consignee failed to collect the cargo after six weeks, customs officers inspected containers on the ships and found 4.8 tonnes of tusks – all from Tanzania. The shipper was Puja Ltd, which is not registered with Tanzania’s Business Registration and Licensing Agency or the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority, a legal requirement for any export operation.
• In two raids on October 13 and 16 last year, Hong Kong authorities seized close to 1.8 tonnes of tusks from Kenya and 1.9 tonnes from Tanzania.
• On November 15, just more than a tonne of raw ivory of Tanzanian origin was seized in Hong Kong.
• On January 16, more than two tonnes of ivory from Tanzania and Rwanda were impounded in Kenya.
The African elephant’s survival as a species is clearly on the line: in 1930 there were between five and 10-million elephants on the continent – because of poaching and habitat loss, half a million remain.
The illegal ivory trade also poses a grave threat to the economy of impoverished Tanzania. According to the ministry of natural resources and tourism, tourism accounts for about 17% of the country’s gross domestic product and almost 25% of export earnings.
The country’s Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki admitted to amaBhungane that politicians are involved in the ivory trade.
“This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network,” Kagasheki said.
His deputy, Lazaro Nyalandu, echoed this, saying that big names in the Cabinet and the army, as well as officials in wildlife conservation, the Tanzanian Port Authority, the immigration department and the police, are implicated.
“It is a hard fight because the network collaborates as a team, sharing information, money and positions,” Nyalandu said.
A report read by the main opposition party, Chadema, in Parliament in June pointed a finger at a member of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, wealthy businessperson Mohsin Abdallah Shein.
Shein was said to own 16 hunting blocks in game reserves. He allegedly uses these for poaching.
The hunting blocks are held by four companies – Royal Frontiers of Tanzania Limited, Game Frontiers of Tanzania Limited, Western Frontiers of Tanzania Limited and Northern Hunting and Enterprises Limited – which local media alleged belong either to him or his relatives.
This week, Shein described himself as “an innocent citizen of Tanzania” who is being targeted by business competitors.
“I’ve never been involved in illegal business, let alone elephant tusks,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
“I have a number of legal businesses and I don’t see the point of it.”
Shein said that he owned Game Frontiers of Tanzania, but that the company operates “according to the law. These heavy allegations are full of lies.” He vehemently denied owning 16 hunting blocks.
Another powerful figure under suspicion is the CCM secretary general, Abdulrahman Kinana.
In 2009, customs officers at the Vietnamese port of Haiphong found tusks weighing a massive 6.2 tonnes under bags of plastic waste on the freighter Sharaf.
The Sharaf Shipping Company, which owns the Sharaf, was registered in October 2003 in the name of Kinana and his wife.
Kinana insists he did not know about the hidden cargo. This week he said that both Interpol and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species had cleared him of any wrongdoing and that he was a victim of a politically motivated smear campaign.
The Environmental Investigative Agency complained in a 2011 report that the Tanzanian authorities appear unwilling, or unable, to control the illegal trade because government officials are implicated.
AmaBhungane heard a similar tale from a ranger in Selous Game Reserve, who spoke anonymously. He said it would be very hard to eradicate “the business” because it involves senior officials in government, the police force and the wildlife department.
The ranger said that a large number of police officers are on the syndicates’ payroll and that they receive about up to seven million Tanzanian shillings (Tsh) (about R4400) a month – at least three times their police salaries.
Corrupt police officers and rangers have also released poaching suspects arrested in the parks and tipped off “the network” about the government’s or police’s plans.
Last week, two Dar es Salaam police officers were arrested in the coastal town of Kisarawe with 70 tusks worth Tsh850-million – a haul equivalent to 35 poached animals.
The director of criminal investigation, Robert Manumba, confirmed that elephant poaching in Tanzania has worsened in recent years and that smugglers conceal illegal ivory under cement, sunflower seed, plastic, timber and maize.
According to Allan Kijazi, director of Tanzanian National Parks, his agency had recruited an additional 250 game rangers since December 2011 to combat poaching.
A spokesperson for Tanzania National Parks, Paschal Shelutete, said that a major difficulty is that rangers are more lightly armed than poachers, who use semiautomatic rifles, including AK-47s.
Further compounding the difficulties of enforcement is the fact that many of the poachers are freed after arrest.
The Chadema report complains that some magistrates give unconditional bail to suspects facing poaching charges.
The director of the wildlife section in the natural resources ministry, Alexander Songorwa, commented that toothless laws are another obstacle.
“Some laws do not allow rangers to use guns in the fight against the bandits,” he said. A ranger caught poaching faced a paltry Tsh20 000 fine.
The alleged involvement of businesspeople has been highlighted by the case of Frank William, a hotelier and mining capitalist arrested in January and charged with intermediating between local poachers and the smuggling syndicates. He was released on bail.
Another businessperson who faces charges, Selemani Isanzu, is suspected of exporting 781 tusks through Malawi in May. He couldn’t be reached for comment this week.
After the Vietnamese authorities impounded more than six tonnes of raw ivory in 2009, a range of Tanzanian suspects, including senior freight company executives, an official of the Tanzania Revenue Authority and four Dar es Salaam port employees, appeared in the Kisutu Magistrate’s Court.
The charges were dropped last year, reportedly after Vietnam declined to pass on evidence, saying no treaty between the countries allowed for this.
The hope is that President Barack Obama’s $10-million pledge, handed to Tanzania’s natural resources ministry, will make some impact by providing training for enforcement officers and technical support.
The spokesperson for the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Dana Banks, said the aim was “to strengthen policies and legislative frameworks and enhance investigative and law enforcement functions”.
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