Tanzania’s shame

The country’s elephant population has plummeted under the watch of its outgoing President
June 17, 2015

Jakaya Kikwete is nearing the end of his two terms and 10 years as President of Tanzania. Ahead of this autumn’s elections, acolytes are brandishing statistics showing what a success he has been—2.7m jobs created, 5,000 more schools, households with electricity rising from 10 to 36 per cent, malaria cases down 60 per cent. The one figure they hardly ever mention, however, is the shocking and shameful number of elephants slaughtered on his watch—nearly 100,000.

Under Julius Nyerere, the father and first President of postcolonial Tanzania, the country championed elephant conservation, demanding and helping secure the international ban on ivory trading that was adopted in 1989. Under Kikwete it has become an elephant slaughterhouse. Since he took office in 2005, Tanzania’s elephant population, previously the second biggest in Africa, has slumped from more than 140,000 to fewer than 50,000—nearly 10,000 of those magnificent creatures shot, speared or poisoned for each year he has been in office. A third of all the elephants killed in Africa are in Tanzania. More than a third of all ivory seized in Asia emanates from Tanzania.

Selous, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the world’s largest game reserves, boasted 70,000 elephants within its eco-system in 2006: today just 13,000 remain. Having plundered Selous, the poachers targeted Tanzania’s second biggest concentration of elephants in the Ruaha national park and Rungwa game reserve. The numbers there have plummeted from 31,600 in 2009 to an estimated 8,200.

Kikwete has no excuses. Tanzania has not been crippled by war. It is not awash with arms. It does not lack resources—a darling of western donors, it received nearly $2.6bn in 2012. It is a stable country that has been governed by the same party for the past half-century and possesses strong security and intelligence services. Tanzania’s problem is a deep, pervasive, endemic corruption that makes it not a victim of China’s lust for ivory but a willing and active accomplice.

At every level—ministers, politicians, judges, civil servants, soldiers, policemen, customs officers, port officials, park rangers—there are those that lubricate the relentless flow of hacked-off tusks from Tanzania’s reserves to the ports of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, whence they are smuggled out in containers of lumber or soya beans. “Collusion between corrupt officials and criminal enterprises explains the unprecedented scale of poaching and ivory smuggling in the country... Corruption is the key enabling factor at every stage of the ivory trafficking chain,” Britain’s Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported last year.

Or as Khamis Kagasheki, a former Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, told Tanzania’s parliament: “This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network.” Kagasheki was sacked soon afterwards.

Faced with rising international concern, Kikwete’s government appears to have responded with a two-pronged strategy.

First, his government has sought to play down the scale of the slaughter. For six months it suppressed a survey financed by Paul Allen, founder of Microsoft, that showed that Ruaha’s elephant population had fallen 60 per cent in a single year, then disputed the results when it leaked. It banned the respected East African newspaper, published in neighbouring Kenya, after it published a summary of that survey—and a cartoon showing nymphs labelled Corruption, Incompetence and Cronyism feeding a sybaritic Kikwete. It is now introducing two draconian acts of censorship—a Cybercrimes Act that makes it illegal for anyone to share “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate” information on the internet; and a Statistics Act making it illegal to disseminate statistics not authorised by the government. “They’re trying to find ever more ways to gag people,” one source said.

Second, Kikwete’s administration has responded with words rather than actions—not least to keep the donor dollars flowing. At a London summit hosted by the Princes Charles and William last year, Kikwete made an eye-catching pledge to put Tanzania’s huge, leaky 137-tonne ivory stockpile “beyond economic use”—a dramatic reversal of his government’s previous efforts to sell those 40,000 tusks.

But 16 months on, a western-funded inventory of that stock has barely begun, and there is little sign of the national elephant action plan that was supposed to follow. The President also appointed Lazaro Nyalandu to succeed Kagasheki. Scarcely a week now passes without a fresh announcement from the young, smooth-talking, US-educated minister—more arrests, more seizures, more rangers, more money, more training and equipment.

In fairness some of those claims are true. A new foreign-funded, multi-agency task force has arrested hundreds of lower-level members of the poaching syndicates. But it has been unable to arrest the ones that really matter—the well-connected kingpins who reside in Dar es Salaam or Arusha and drive the filthy trade.

Kikwete knows who they are. In 2012 his intelligence services gave him a list of several dozen prominent politicians, officials and businessmen with links to his ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. The CCM’s Secretary General and four CCM MPs have been named in parliament. Others have been identified in the media. But little or nothing has happened. Prosecutions peter out. Investigations lead nowhere. The EIA found that in 13 major cases involving 26.5 tonnes of poached ivory (the equivalent of 3,963 dead elephants) since 2009 just one individual—a Chinese citizen—has been convicted.

Kikwete still has time to act, to prevent himself being remembered as the President who reduced Tanzania’s once magnificent elephant herds to so many rotting carcasses. As he will soon be stepping down, he presumably no longer needs the political or financial support of the poaching kingpins. But conservationists have little hope. As one put it: “The strategy is to go after the small fry because those at the top of the poaching syndicates are untouchable.”