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Q&A: Report Alleges Governments' Complicity in Tanzanian Elephant Poaching

Smugglers who dominate the illicit ivory trade from Africa to China said to use Zanzibar as their shipping port.

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An African elephant in Mikumi National Park, which borders Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, in 2013.


"The current situation for Tanzania's elephant population is dire in the extreme." So begins a new report, "Vanishing Point—Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania's Elephants," by the Environmental Investigation Agency. The report pulls no punches in incriminating Tanzania—at the highest levels—in the illegal ivory trade.

Released on the eve of the regional wildlife crime summit currently taking place in Arusha, Tanzania, EIA says some of the important findings include the level of corruption in Tanzania, the amount of ivory that's trafficked, and the role Zanzibar plays in the ivory trade.

But the most incendiary findings are the degree to which Chinese officials participate in the ivory trade. Before a March 2013 visit to Tanzania by China's President, Xi Jinping, the report notes, Chinese buyers "began purchasing thousands of kilos of ivory, later sent to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane."

According to the report, Tanzania lost more elephants to poaching between 2009 and 2013 than any other country in Africa—some 10,000 slaughtered there in 2013 alone. In the vast Selous Game Reserve, a renowned bastion for animals of the African savanna, two-thirds of the elephants have been killed.

National Geographic spoke with environmental lawyer Shruti Suresh, a wildlife campaigner with EIA and one of the authors of the report, about its disturbing revelations.

Tanzania is one of the biggest source regions in the world for illegal ivory. Is this because Tanzania has (or had) so many elephants or because the country is rife with corruption?

Yes, one reason is that there were so many elephants in the Tanzania. But for this level of poaching—in combination with the scale of the trafficking, and the amount of ivory going past government officers at every stage in the chain—it's also due to corruption. The traffickers are moving ivory with impunity.

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Confiscated ivory sits in a chemical-waste facility in Hong Kong in 2014.


The report highlights the participation of Chinese officials in the trade. Tell us about some of the other revelations.

The most startling findings from our investigation are the scale of the poaching and how much ivory is being trafficked. We were aware of the elephant population decline figures, but a trader we spoke with said that less than 10 percent of the ivory is actually being seized when it leaves Tanzania.

Another key finding from the investigation is the role of Zanzibar in the ivory trade. We met with traders who spoke about how easy it is to get ivory out of Zanzibar.

The traders also said that there's a tight-knit group of smugglers who work with a group of Chinese "brothers" that have connections to Guangdong Province in China.

This syndicate is one of the main groups dominating the ivory trade from Africa to China using Zanzibar as their base. They work with trusted Tanzanians to front their operations and to make arrangements with corrupt Tanzanian government officials.

What about Chinese political ties to the ivory trade?

Our findings are related [in part] to China's President Xi Jinping's visit to Tanzania in 2013. Our information was based on information obtained through EIA investigators in September of this year.

They spoke with two Tanzanian traders based at the Mwenge market in Dar es Salaam. The Mwenge market is a hub for the ivory trade.

What EIA found is that prior to the visit in March 2013 there were a number of ivory buyers who had cleared out the Mwenge market. They said they were buying the ivory for the delegation that was coming with the president—and that this ivory will be sent in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane.

The report notes that around the time of Xi Jinping's visit the market price of ivory in Tanzania doubled, to $700 a kilo.

Yes. Traders said that a number of Chinese buyers associated with the delegation came two weeks prior to the president. [Their purchases] increased the prices in Tanzania for ivory because of the high demand. All of this is captured on video.

There were also significant findings about the Chinese navy, weren't there?

Yes. In December 2013 there was an official visit. This involved a series of activities between naval officers and personnel from the Chinese government and Tanzania government. During that time, there was a major surge in business for ivory traders.

Traders told EIA that one dealer made $50,000 selling ivory to the naval personnel. This information correlated with the arrest by Tanzanian officials of a Chinese national who was caught with 81 tusks—intended for naval officers.

Does this suggest that the political involvement in the ivory trade is deeper than thought?

I would say that EIA's new report provides a greater level of detail about the manner of ivory trafficking and the corruption in both the Tanzanian and Chinese government than previously known.

Turning to Tanzanian political involvement: According to the report, in 2012 a secret list was handed to President Jakaya Kikwete by intelligence sources. The list  "contained names of prominent politicians and businesspeople who, due to their links to the ruling party, are regarded as untouchable." Tell us about the list.

We've been trying to get more information about that list—but what we do know is that names have been provided to President Kikwete. To the best of our knowledge, the people on that list have not been investigated further.

The role of prominent politicians and business people [in the trade] has been covered by the media. Also, some of the MPs have raised the issue during parliamentary discussions. Furthermore, the former Minister for Natural Resources, Khamis Kagasheki, also named at least four MPs who have been implicated in the trade.

So we know based that there are politicians in the trade. For example, certain shipping companies implicated in major ivory seizures are run by a prominent politician, Abdulrahman Kinana, the Secretary General of the CCM [Chama Cha Mapinduzi] ruling party—who has been linked previously to smuggling ivory.

All this shows that this trade goes even higher up than was originally thought.

At one point, the report states that "responsibility lies at the highest levels of government." It goes on to say that in 2005 there were some 142,000 elephants in Tanzania and that when President Kikwete leaves office in 2015, the population will have dropped to some 55,000. Is EIA saying Kikwete is personally culpable for this decline?

We know that corruption takes place at all levels. But we're asking: Why hasn't the president done more to curb the decline?

Has the president responded to EIA's claims?

We've shared our report with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. We've also shared confidential briefings with enforcement authorities in Tanzania and also authorities in China.

So far, we've not received a direct response to the information provided.

EIA has closely followed the Tanzanian justice system as it relates to the ivory trade. What did EIA find?

We've tried to obtain court records of cases related to poaching and trafficking. And also tracked information available publicly on the action taken after a seizure takes place.

What we've found is that in connection with a number seizures that amount to 26.5 tons of ivory—this has resulted in merely one conviction in Tanzania: Yu Bo, the man caught with 81 tusks. He was given a 20-year sentence. However, as of October 2014, he'd filed an appeal.

At the end of the report, EIA recommends Tanzania make a number of changes.

We want the Tanzanian government to [investigate] the high level ivory traffickers and corrupt officials.

We also want them to conduct DNA analysis on the seizures that are taking place in Tanzania.

And we want the Tanzania government to destroy its entire stockpile.

Do you have any hope that Tanzania will follow these recommendations?

We've seen a change in Tanzania recently—significant commitments to the international community, including signing the Elephant Protection Initiative.

Tanzania can see that this [illegal ivory trade] isn't going to have an impact on just wildlife and the immediate environment. It's also going to have an impact on the economy, on future growth, on development, and on Tanzanian society at large. Tanzania must now realize they need to get their act together—Tanzania may really lose all its elephants in the near future.

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