China and Tanzania’s Elephant Holocaust
Adam Cruise
15 November, 2014

A report released this month by The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) called Vanishing Points – Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants has revealed that Tanzania is officially the world’s largest source of poached ivory and China is by far the greatest beneficiary. Nothing surprising there, but what’s of particular concern is that the illicit trade is masterminded by high-ranking officials from both countries in a nefarious partnership that has caused half of Tanzania’s once-considerable elephant population to be slaughtered in just five years. Tanzania’s largest game park, the Selous reserve has seen its elephant numbers plummet by a staggering 67% from around 40,000 individuals to around 13,000, which is equivalent to thirty elephants slaughtered a day.

The report, released on the eve of a major wildlife crime summit in Tanzania, has revealed that senior politicians in Tanzania’s ruling party as well as high-level Chinese diplomatic delegations are responsible for transporting huge amounts of ivory out of the country. In 2013 an official visit of the Chinese naval task force correlated with a sudden spike in business for ivory traders with one dealer bragging he made $50,000 from naval personnel, while a Chinese national was caught with 81 tusks trying to enter the port of Dar es Salaam, also intended for Chinese naval officers. The same phenomenon occurred when Chinese President Xi Jingping paid an official visit to Tanzania. Prices of ivory doubled during the period the presidential delegation were there. The large Chinese government and business delegation on the visit used the opportunity to procure a substantial amount of ivory, transporting it to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane.

Even as far back as 2006, the EIA uncovered Chinese Embassy Staff as major buyers in ivory, while in 2012 Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete was handed a list of top businesspeople, government officials and MPs heavily implicated with the ivory trade. To date nobody on the list has been investigated let alone arrested. Last year former Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Khamis Kagaheki, named four prominent MPs in the government actively involved in the ivory trade, and again nothing was done apart from Kagaheki being unceremoniously sacked from his post.

Trade in ‘illicit’ ivory in Tanzania is a booming business with a sophisticated network of high-ranking officials from both countries. Furthermore, the crime appears to be carried out with impunity. One of EIA’s investigators was offered tusks from the Government’s storeroom and even put them in touch with a dealer who could supply tusks direct from the Selous Reserve. As EIA’s 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.’

Rice believes that ‘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.’

Tanzania and China were both named and shamed in 2013 for their involvemnent in the ivory trade. CITES demanded that each government implement action plans to halt the plague but it appears that neither have. Kikwete has made a big show of compliance to CITES’s demands. In 2013 his government launched Operation Tokosa a concerted anti-poaching operation called Tokomeza. This was initially, the multi-agency operation  and appeared to be succeeding, making more than 900 arrests and  seizing ivory and firearms. Yet it was fundamentally undermined by a series of human rights abuses carried out by the military against livestock herders. As a result, the operation was suspended.

Then as part of the CITES directed elephant action plan, the current minister of Natural Resources, Lazaro Nyalandu, has sought support and additional funding of at least US$50 million from the international community, mostly for anti-poaching activities. In February this year, Kikwete signed the London’s Convention on a 10-year moratorium on ivory sales. During a recent television interview, he also stated that ivory should be banned out right. It was a strange volt-face by a president who had been long campaigning to down-list elephants so that the country could sell of its huge stockpile of tusks.

This begs the question whether Kikwete is genuinely prepared to tackle the problem or, as it appears from this EIA report, he is merely disingenuously providing a diversion to the ongoing conspiracy. In the last five years Tanzania has ‘confiscated’ 26.5 tons of ivory which means that 3,963 elephants died. But strangely enough there has been only one conviction for poaching and trafficking

The report also revealed that sales in China, the source of the ivory crisis, are burgeoning. Despite some high-profile arrests and a public display of crushing seized tusks, the Chinese Government has actively been promoting ivory carving as part of the country’s cultural heritage, but are unconcerned that it is threatening the very survival of Africa’s wildlife.

Investigations reveal that the new trend is that ivory is used as gifts for the political and business elites, as a non-financial bribe. Chinese-led criminal syndicates are making huge profits from this new market but are, in the process, fostering a surge in demand as well as fueling corruption in Tanzania. The latter has, as a result of the ivory trade, slid from 88 to 111 of 178 countries according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

While China’s enforcement agencies deserve some credit for a recent operations resulting in successful prosecutions, the amount of illegal ivory seized, according to the EIA, represents at best only about five per cent of illegal ivory flowing into China meaning that the Chinese government are window dressing the horror. If anything, this proves they are deeply complicit.

With both countries constantly flaunting international law at its highest levels, it’s high time for the world to take the gloves off. Tanzania and China must be held accountable for the holocaust; the future of Africa’s elephants depends on it.

Main Photo: (Don Pinnock)