Until Shubert Mwarabu saw a photograph of an elephant with its face hacked and bloodied, poaching was an abstraction. He didn’t know anything about ivory trafficking, or even what ivory was used for. That was in 2011, and the Tanzanian musician was 25.
The photo had a powerful impact on him, and from then on, he says, he threw himself into the fight to save Tanzania’s elephants.
Mwarabu, who previously had organized clubs in primary schools for advocating against child abuse, now started school conservation clubs. He composed songs about protecting elephants. His first, called “Let’s Talk About Poaching,” or “Tupige Vita Ujangili” in KiSwahili, was played on Tanzania’s national radio station.
His efforts have been noticed in Tanzania and beyond. The California-based nonprofit Generation Awakening, which works to support young environmental activists, appointed him their first country ambassador.
In October 2013, Mwarabu launched a one-man campaign, naming it Me Against Poaching, to show that change can come from a single person.
Now he’s leading the first organized citizen campaign to lobby the Tanzanian government to halt the ivory trafficking that has made this East African country ground zero in the slaughter of Africa's elephants. Okoa Tembo wa Tanzania, “Save Tanzania’s Elephants,” succeeded in making conservation an election issue in the hotly contested presidential race, Mwarabu says.
The campaign involves clubs in secondary schools, colleges, and universities, along with more than 20 “ambassadors” throughout the country. Participants use social media and old-fashioned footslogging to get the message out.
After Tanzania’s new president, John Pombe Magufuli, took office in early November, the activists held a press conference and released an open letter calling on him to take specific steps to end the ivory trade.
Dozens of prominent Tanzanian scientists, celebrities, academics, journalists, and business leaders have signed the letter. Among them is biologist Benezeth Mutayoba, a professor at Sokoine University of Agriculture, the vice chairman of the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society and a recipient of the 2014 year National Geographic/Buffett Award for leadership in conservation.
Speaking from his home in Ifakara, in southern Tanzania, Mwarabu says he’s encouraged by how much publicity the open letter is generating and by the support the campaign has received in Tanzania.
What prompted you and the other team members to start this campaign?
Through the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, we found out that we’ve lost about 60 percent of our elephants in five years' time. We, a group of conservationists, came together as activists, as concerned citizens, and we said, “So, what are we going to do?” I had an idea of writing a letter to this incoming government. Some others had the idea of starting this campaign. So we put together the ideas.
Okoa Tembo wa Tanzania has been called a “first” of its kind. How is this campaign a first?
Our leaders have not heard from us, the citizens, on the issue of demanding actions in conservation. This is the first time we have come together and called for actions by the government. Elephants have made Tanzania their safe haven, and we cannot just remain quiet and be the generation that watched them go extinct.
What gives you hope that this president might do more to protect the elephants?
When he was Minister [of Public Works], his ministry was among the best in the country. He is a man of action. Also, in his inaugural address to Parliament on the 20th of November, he mentioned that he would deal with this crisis. He said that it's not possible for this much ivory from Tanzania being seized in other countries without the involvement of people from the wildlife ministry.
Can you talk about your three campaign goals, which are also the three things you ask of President Magufuli?
The first is to seek arrest and prosecution of both major and minor ivory traders in the country. Their presence stimulates poaching. They are the ones hiring the poachers in the rural areas. By arresting them, by prosecuting them, we are cutting the networks.
Do you think the government knows who the other big ivory traders are?
We are not sure—it's just out of rumors. Their names are not out, and we don't know. That's why we want the responsible authorities to act on this issue, to take their power and act on it.
Your letter also asks the president to use Tanzania's influence to encourage China to close its ivory markets.
More than 90 percent of our ivory goes to China. So closing the ivory market would mean securing our elephants in Tanzania.
There is a long-standing friendship between Tanzania and China. And we say that in friendship there is an equal understanding. The way the Chinese don't want their panda to be treated is the way we Tanzanians don't want our elephants to be treated.
We just ask for this long-term friendship to respect each other, to respect our wealth, to respect our resources, to respect our elephants and other wildlife.
China has invested heavily in Tanzania.
Yes, China is benefiting a lot in our country, and we believe that Tanzania can use this fact and tell China: We want you to close the ivory market.
China has been supporting anti-poaching efforts in Tanzania, though, hasn’t it?
Conservation initiatives, yes. China is trying to give us some vehicles for conservation. They give us the cars, they give us the petrol, the tents. Closing the ivory market would be better than just giving us this equipment.
You’re asking not only to stop ivory trafficking but for a complete shut down of the ivory market. Why is that?
The presence of the legal market is acting as an umbrella, a cover, for the illegal market. It’s not easy to know which ivory is legal and which ivory is not legal as long as it’s in the market. So we demand that the market be closed forever.
The third request in your letter is that the country's ivory stockpile be destroyed. Why is that important to your team?
Burning the stockpile is not only important to the team, but to all Tanzanians. Tanzania cannot legally sell its ivory. Tanzania signed the Elephant Protection Initiative last year that it wouldn't be involved in the trade for ten years. So the stockpile is without value, and yet it’s expensive to maintain and guard.
When some other countries, like Kenya, have burned their ivory, it was like sending a message that they were seriously involved in conservation. So we believe that burning the stockpile, which is the largest in the world, would send a message that Tanzania is now committed to saving the elephants.
What's next for Okoa Tembo wa Tanzania?
First, we’re going to ask for an appointment with Mr. President. We want to talk and see how he received our open letter. But also, we have a plan to appoint representatives from every political party in the new Parliament. Word[s] spoken in the Parliament spread far. All the media cover that.
What can the international community do to support your efforts and the campaign?
Thank you. First, end domestic trade, trade from within their countries. Support us through wildlife tourism—a sector that contributes a lot to our national income.
And support the campaigns by Tanzanians. Maybe you cannot talk and be heard. But someone can hear us, and when he talks, his voice can reach far. So, support the campaigns that may have impact on our elephants.
Maraya Cornell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.