September 29, 2018
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It is a sight that has made Tanzania’s savannah a Mecca for wildlife tourists. When the sun had climbed high enough to warm their backs, four dark grey shapes lumbered leisurely out of a thicket and began, without much urgency, to graze.
But this family of elephants is lucky to be alive — survivors of what has been described as one of the most catastrophic poaching sprees in history. “If they were from the Selous reserve, they’d keep their distance and they’d be quite aggressive,” said Raymond, a guide. “There they have learnt that humans are dangerous.”
Tens of thousands of elephants have been killed over the past decade, as rising wealth in China and East Asia created new customers for luxury ivory items.
The crisis, exacerbated by a transnational network of organised crime and corruption, affects almost every African country with an elephant population and will be the subject of an international summit hosted by the Duke of Cambridge in London next month.
This week Prince William visited the port of Dar es Salaam and Tanzania’s ivory stockpile to raise awareness ahead of the conference. A slew of initiatives will be announced, including a commitment by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to sign up to an intelligence sharing initiative championed by the Duke.
Eighteen African countries will present their own plans to tackle the crisis and lobby for Western funding.
It is an immensely complex task made no easier by rancorous divisions between conservationists, campaigners, and governments over issues like licensed hunting, law enforcement and whether to destroy, store or sell the ivory stockpiles most governments maintain.
A typical dispute erupted earlier this month, when Elephants Without Borders, an NGO, reported an alarming increase in sightings of elephant carcasses in Botswana, which is home to more elephants than any other country in Africa and has previously been considered relatively safe from poaching.
The government hit back angrily, arguing the methodology was flawed, there was no evidence they had all died recently and that the numbers reported were not inconsistent with the natural rate of death.
But as diplomats and world leaders search for strategies to tackle the problem, the country once synonymous with the worst killing is emerging as an unlikely poster child for counter-poaching strategies.
“It is quite a dramatic change. In the past few years Tanzania has really turned the tide on poaching,” said Krissie Clark, the director of the PAMS Foundation, which supports law enforcement against poaching and trafficking in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa. “It is a remarkable achievement and they deserve recognition for it.”
The most recent comprehensive study found that Tanzania had lost 60 per cent of its more than 100,000 elephants between 2009 and 2014 – equivalent to more than 30 a day.
The Selous game reserve, which forms a continuous ecosystem with the Mikumi National Park that The Daily Telegraph visited, was one of the worst hit areas.
Meanwhile, the country’s major ports in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar gained reputations as hubs for ivory poached not only in Tanzania, but across eastern and Central Africa.
But conservationists say there has been a new sense of political will to fight the trade since John Magufuli, a populist and authoritarian president, came to power in 2015 promising to clean up entrenched corruption, and a new intelligence-led approach to policing intended to target the powerful organised crime bosses at the top of the food chain.
“There are five levels to a poaching syndicate,” said Robert Mande, the chairman of the National Anti-Poaching Task Force. “First you have people who live near the protected areas, who facilitate the second level, the killers who come in with a gun.”
“Level three are the brokers, who put out the order locally and organise transport and sell on to level four, rich guys in Dar es Salaam or Arusha who have communication with level five, the financiers distributing money from Vietnam or China. So whenever we arrest someone, we are looking for the next person in the chain.”
While gangs of five or six poachers would typically share just 90,000 shillings, or $40 (pounds 30), per kilogram of ivory they supply, the kingpins often deal in sums of six figures.
Mr Mande’s team has enjoyed several high-profile successes, including the 2016 arrest of Yang Fenglan, the “ivory queen” accused of smuggling more than 700 tusks worth pounds 1.7 million out of the country. Another operation nabbed 12 members of what he calls the “triple six gang” – so-called because of the 666 pieces of ivory they were caught with.
But it is precisely targeting these top-level players where investigators can run into resistance.
“At that level you are talking about complex relationships between different people involving a lot of corruption, money laundering, organised crime,” said Mr Mande. “You are dealing with overlapping syndicates who do multiple crimes, not just poaching, and bring on board a vast number of people. That means different political influences. So you can enter into a war with anybody whether you know it or not.”
Several wildlife officers and conservationists have paid the ultimate price in such wars.
In December 2015 Emily Stephen Kisamo, the chief anti-poaching official at TANAPA, the Tanzanian National Parks authority, was found in the boot of his car with his throat slit.
In August 2017 Wayne Lotter, Ms Clark’s co-director at the PAMS foundation, was shot dead in Dar es Salaam. His colleagues believe he was assassinated in a contract killing ordered by trafficking syndicates he was investigating. Seventeen people have been charged with Lotter’s death, including the suspected triggerman, but the identity of the organisers has yet to be established.
Mr Mande insists he feels secure, but others involved in wildlife protection are guarded about what they say, and describe an awareness they are playing a high-stakes game.
High level corruption is the elephant in the room and few officials or conservationists are willing to discuss it publicly. Last year a report by zoologists at the University of York found a troubling correlation between clusters of elephant carcasses and ranger posts. Evidence, researchers said, of collusion between poachers and the people meant to stop them.
Tanzania is not alone in struggling with a nexus between wildlife crime and high-level corruption.
In March, The Telegraph revealed how Grace Mugabe, the former first lady of Zimbabwe, had been at the centre of a poaching network and abused her position to smuggle ivory out of the country.
There is cautious optimism that counter measures, a ban on ivory in China and falling prices may finally be having an impact on the trade.
“The poaching crisis has peaked in absolute terms . . . but the situation is so fragile now we might not have seen the worst of it,” said a Western conservationist who, like many working at the sharp end of the crisis, asked for anonymity. “Because a lot of populations have been pushed to the edge they could be exterminated anyway.”
Tanzania’s elephants are comparatively lucky. At the last estimate there were still around 40,000 of them, and if the poachers can be stopped — or at least deterred — numbers should recover.
But no one is pretending that poaching here has been eradicated.