The Elephant in the room

 

Every year, thousands of elephants are killed for their tusks in Tanzania, and the trade of their ivory is sophisticated, global and hugely lucrative. According to growing evidence, this trade also relies on complicity, if not direct profiteering, that goes all the way to the top. 

In March 2013, after China’s President Xi Jinping toured Tanzania on a state visit, he and his fellow officials left the country with plenty of good will, a pile of signed cooperation deals, and some warm memories. But if a report released last November is to be believed, that’s not all they left with.

According to allegations in an investigation conducted by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the Chinese delegation also left with a large amount of illegal ivory. In the run-up to Xi’s visit, Chinese buyers purchased illicit ivory, claims the report. Then, while President Xi was mingling with Tanzania’s elite, officials reportedly took advantage of the reduced checks for diplomatic visits to take bags full of ivory back to China.

This incident forms the backbone of the EIA’s investigation, but it also cites several other examples of Chinese demand driving Tanzania’s ivory trade. 

The report also alleges, for instance, that in November 2013, elephant tusks were found in a house in Dar es Salaam where three Chinese nationals were arrested; and it claims that in December 2013, a Chinese man, who had already paid thousands of dollars in bribes at an earlier checkpoint, was stopped as he tried to deliver large quantities of ivory to members of a Chinese naval task force that had docked in Dar es Salaam.

Senior Chinese diplomats have vehemently denied the report’s claims and described them as “groundless”.

 

From parks to ports

Since a lull in the early 1980s, rates of poaching have risen and the country is now considered to be the epicentre of Africa’s ivory trade. Some have calculated that 100,000 elephants have been killed in just the last three years, and the EIA claims that every third elephant poached in Africa dies in Tanzania.

Many Tanzanians are deeply concerned, not least because the issue is a threat to the country’s tourism industry – no-one wants to see dead elephants on safari – but the government’s efforts to stem poaching have not been successful.

Towards the end of 2013, for example, the government launched Operation Tokomeza (Swahili for “terminate”) to great hopes and expectation. 

The initiative, which reportedly advocated a highly controversial “shoot-to-kill” policy for poachers, saw some small initial victories. 

But there were allegations that officers involved were committing a range of human rights abuses.

However, according to many experts, investigators and individuals on the frontline of the battle, the perpetrators of Tanzania’s ivory trade are not limited to those who directly kill the elephants and harvest their tusks. In the words of the EIA, “collusion between corrupt officials and criminal enterprises” lies at the heart of the problem, all the way through from the national parks to the national ports.

The global trade in ivory amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and like human trafficking or the drugs trade, these worldwide operations require a high degree of coordination between profiting parties.

However, on this front, no-one has been touched despite pressure from activists both inside and outside the country. One of the most outspoken public figures on this topic in recent years has been Khamis Kagasheki, who in his role as Minister for Tourism and Natural Resources in mid-2013, told journalists: “[the poaching business] involves rich people who have formed a very sophisticated network,” adding, “it’s now time to name and shame people engaging in this menace”.

Kagasheki spoke passionately and vowed to uncover those at the top of the poaching networks, saying that no-one was safe regardless of their social standing. But by the end of the year, he had been booted out of office.

The reason given for Kagasheki’s sacking was that he was ultimately responsible for the abuses committed under Operation Tokomeza, but some observers believed the minister was being scapegoated and deliberately silenced.

Who the main ivory profiteers is difficult to say given the government’s failure to officially pursue allegations, but certain individuals have come under particular scrutiny from the media, activists and some politicians.

 

In the market

At the other end of this illicit global trade are of course the buyers and consumers of ivory.

It is well known that much of the demand for the material comes from Asia, and in particular China, but less well known is that the United States is the world’s second-largest retail market for ivory. 

In the words of US officials, “significant amounts of recently acquired ivory are smuggled into the United States and laundered into the antique market.”

In a report based on months of investigations, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) blames much of the problem on a lack of sufficient checks and balances, noting: “domestic markets [in the US] are largely ignored and unregulated, allowing traffickers to ‘launder’ recently-poached ivory by selling to unsuspecting retailers and consumers.” 

According to the publication, “most of the trade in [the US] is unfettered by common sense standards of proof. Simply put, the current system does not include sensible precautions.”

The situation in China is arguably far worse. 

Demand for ivory is strong, the trade is extremely lucrative, and attempts to clamp down on these illegal markets still have a long way to go and have, at times, backfired.

To begin with, in some Chinese traditions, ivory as well as many other animal parts are thought to have medicinal qualities. 

Along with rising incomes, this keeps up demand, and these beliefs are often compounded with ignorance about how the items are actually harvested. The Chinese word for ivory literally translates as “elephant teeth” and there is a widespread misperception that ivory can be taken without killing the animal.

Compounding this is the fact that there is huge interest in maintaining the trade because it is extremely lucrative. 

In 2008, the Chinese government attempted to undermine these profits by purchasing 62 tonnes of ivory from four African countries and selling the stock legally. The idea was that flooding the market would reduce prices, thus removing the incentive for illegal traders, and would also lessen the need for more poaching. In reality, the move reinvigorated the market for ivory, opened up new avenues for smugglers, and gave the impression that elephants were not in fact endangered.

 

What to do

From the lush reserves where elephants roam to the shady black markets on which their seized tusks are traded, via countless checkpoints, kickbacks and co-conspirators on the way, the global trade in illegal ivory is well-entrenched and highly sophisticated. However, there are plenty of actions that can be, and are being, taken all along the supply chain, with varying levels of success. In China, there is some evidence that progress is being made both in terms of government efforts and public awareness. 

The government, for instance, has been warning Chinese nationals on visits to African nations not to carry illegal wildlife, and has stepped up arrests of known smugglers, and in what was hailed as a landmark move by conservationists in January 2014, Beijing publicly destroyed over six tonnes of ivory in an attempt “to discourage [the] illegal ivory trade, protect wildlife and raise public awareness”.

Believing that changing popular perceptions in order to drive down demand is at the crux of the issue, there have also been a number of recent awareness-raising campaigns led by high-profile Chinese celebrities, such as the basketball player Yao Ming and actress Li Bingbing, who have posed in front of the dead carcasses of rhinos and elephants, and Hollywood superstar Jackie Chan.

In Africa meanwhile, a host of efforts and proposals have been made for how the continent can combat poaching.

For Gerhard Van Rooyen, at the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes Nairobi office, the main issue is that “the criminal justice systems throughout the region are not at the level they could be. 

They are dealing with transnational organisations,” he has said, “so there needs to be greater cross-border cooperation between relevant agencies.”

Simon Mduma of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) meanwhile has emphasised that poaching needs to be made less attractive. “The reality is until economic disparities are diminished, we won’t tackle poaching,” he has commented. Mduma therefore argues: “We have to increase the risk of being arrested for poaching, to improve our courts, and the time it takes to prosecute.”

As thousands more elephants are killed each year and the trade flourishes, a lot of public pressure is now being directed at politicians. With general elections coming up later this year in Tanzania and public awareness growing that the country’s illegal ivory trade can only happen with the complicity and involvement of officials, patience is running out. International censure is growing louder thanks to reports such as the EIA’s, domestic frustration is rising as the impunity continues. 

Tanzania’s rapidly dwindling elephant population cannot wait much longer for concerted and genuine action to be taken at all levels, and it seems that the Tanzanian people are not prepared to wait much longer either. – New African 

March 2015
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