Tanzania’s new president, John Magufuli, won the presidential election on the ticket he would take tough action on corruption. A month after taking office it seems he been making good on that promise.

After a surprise visit to the finance ministry on his first day as president, Magufuli, who is nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his aggressive approach to tackling corruption when he was public works minister, berated civil servants who were not at their desks. According to a report in The Guardian, the Tanzanian president cancelled lavish independence-day celebrations to free up funds to fight a cholera outbreak; then he slashed the budget for a state dinner to celebrate the opening of parliament, using the money to buy hospital beds. Magufuli has also banned foreign travel for all government officials except the president, vice-president and prime minister and sacked the hospital chief of the main state hospital and dissolved its governing board after he found patients sleeping on the floor.

Tanzania is the main source of illegal ivory

This could spell good news for Tanzania’s beleaguered elephant populations. The Great Elephant Census, an ambitious initiative launched in 2014 by Microsoft’s Paul Allen in partnership with Elephants Without Borders recently found that Tanzania had over 100,000 elephants in 2009, now the east African country only has 43,330 – a decline of 60% in just five years.

The results of the census has been corroborated by Sam Wasser, Director at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, and his team who have been conducting DNA sampling of 15 large ivory seizures of over 0.5 tons around the world between 2006 and 2014. The results, published in the journal Science, prove that with the exception of just one, all seizures consisting of tusks from African savanna elephants have been attributed primarily to Tanzania as the source of origin.

Wasser believes that the ability to move that much illegal ivory out of a single country involves high level political corruption. “It probably explains why the largest poaching hotspots has remained tightly centered on Tanzania over the past decade. The officials enabling this do not have the power to do so in other countries,” he reasons.

Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino program coordinator for TRAFFIC, an international organisation that monitors the trade of wild animals and plants agrees: “You don’t get losses on this scale unless corruption and government complicity of some dimension is at play,” he states.

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 senior politicians in Tanzania’s ruling party are responsible for transporting huge amounts of ivory out of the country.

In 2012, the EIA handed Tanzania’s former president, Jakaya Kikwete, a list of top businesspeople, government officials and MPs heavily implicated with the ivory trade. By 2015 nobody on the list had been investigated let alone arrested.

In 2013, Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Khamis Kagaheki, named four prominent MPs in the government actively involved in the ivory trade. Again nothing was done apart from Kagaheki being unceremoniously sacked from his post. 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, Tanzania’s largest game park.

EIA’s executive Director, Mary Rice said “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.”

Eyes on Tanzania

Now it seems that the necessary political change has begun. Rolf Paasch, Tanzania country director for the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung political foundation, told the Guradian: “In Swahili there is a saying, ‘If you want to sweep the stairs, you have to start from the top’. He says “Magufuli’s personal interventions are an encouraging sign.”

Of particular importance, as far as elephants are concerned, is Magufuli’s firing of the director general of the Tanzania Ports Authority, Awadhi Massawe, and the permanent secretary in the transport ministry, Shaaban Mwinjaka following the disappearance of over 2,700 shipping containers at the port. “President Magufuli has also disbanded the board of directors of the ports authority due to its failure to take action against the Dar es Salaam port’s long history of poor performance,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) has marked Dar-es-Salaam as one of “the most prominent ports of exit for ivory moving to Asian markets and should be a focus for law enforcement action and support.” The EIA report said that Tanzania was the country of export for 37% of large ivory seizures.” While Reuters reported in 2014 that “domestically, nearly 20 tons of ivory were seized between 2010 and 2013.” Most of it at the port of Dar-es-Salaam.

Paasch warns that Magufuli and his cabinet “won’t solve the problem of corruption on their own, [they] will need to complement these actions with a more systematic approach” as there “are deeper structural issues that have allowed corruption to thrive for so long.” This, says Paasch, “is a far more daunting proposition.”

One of the biggest problems is the deep rooted corruption among senior members of Magufuli’s own political party – members, according to The Guardian, that ostensibly funded his election campaign.

Also, Magufuli has not directly turned his full attention to the problem of rampant elephant poaching and the illicit trafficking of ivory. Current indications show that he will have to soon if he is intent on dealing corruption a heavy blow, but how far he will go and for how long remains to be seen. The world is waiting, says Sam Wasser, “all eyes are on Tanzania.