Big game poachers: Claims of links between politicians and poachers merit further investigation


The Economist

Date Published
A 5-minute Al-Jazeera news video covering this story can be seen at: 
The EIA report referred to, entitled “Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation ofTanzania’s Elephants,” can be found at: 
ACROSS Africa the illegal slaughter of elephants is accelerating at such a pace—recent estimates put the number killed at 100,000 in just three years—that it threatens to exterminate whole populations. The worst of this butchery takes place in Tanzania, the biggest source of illegal ivory.
Every third poached elephant in Africa dies on the watch of Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete. His government has made some public efforts to fight poaching over the past year. Among these is a plan to destroy the country’s ivory stockpile of 112 tonnes, worth $50m, rather than sell it off, to place a stigma on the stuff. Billboards warn against the illicit trade and armed search parties have been sent into national parks to scare away poachers. Still, tuskless carcasses keep turning up (see chart).
One contributing factor may be the government’s failure to investigate and if necessary prosecute high-level offenders. Some of these are said to be closely connected to the ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM), which has dominated the politics of Tanzania since the country’s mainland became independent.
State corruption runs through Tanzania’s illegal ivory trade from savannah to sea. At the bottom of the poaching networks are hired helpers who are often recruited from the armed forces. If caught, officers are transferred to new posts rather than fired. Some allege that soldiers rent out guns to poachers. Three years ago a legal game hunter, Andre de Kock, surprised a group of poachers and was killed with a weapon allegedly hired from an officer.
Police have even been known to escort convoys of illicit ivory. Last year an officer crashed a military vehicle outside Arusha, in northern Tanzania, with a stash of tusks and a gun with a silencer. Following analysis of his phone records, the head of the regional crime office is said to have discovered that his own deputy was directly involved in the smuggling operation, along with senior officials in the city. No one has been prosecuted.
Other armed forces and governments are also said to be involved. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit group in London, documents involvement in the illegal ivory trade by Chinese government and military officials.
Yet it is allegations of corruption closer to the top of the Tanzanian ruling party that are of the greatest concern. In the past year The Economist has interviewed officials, conservationists, hunters, villagers, traders and investigators to try to find out who the senior beneficiaries are.
One name that merits further investigation is Mohsin Abdallah, also known as Sheni, a donor to the CCM and a former member of its national executive committee. He has controlled various hunting blocks near the Selous Game Reserve and a transport business, Zantas Air.
Several MPs have accused Mr Abdullah of using blocks of land allocated for legal professional hunting for illegal poaching instead. He denies all involvement. An assistant at his office, who declined to put Mr Abdallah on the telephone, said, “He is not doing any illegal business. His enemies are trying to destroy him.”
An even more senior figure said to be implicated is Abdulrahman Kinana, the ruling party’s secretary-general. He is a career military man who served as a member of parliament, defence minister and deputy foreign minister. An MP, Peter Msigwa, has accused Mr Kinana in parliament and outside it of involvement in the ivory trade. Mr Kinana has repeatedly denied the accusations and has sued Mr Msigwa, but no ruling has been published.
Mr Kinana owns a company, Sharaf Shipping, that operated a ship, the Bus Herman Ledley, which in 2009 was found in Vietnam with a container filled with 6.2 tonnes of ivory. Mr Kinana strenuously denies knowing about the shipment. “The accusations are unfounded, malicious and aimed at deliberately tarnishing my image and that of my party,” he said at a public meeting. Our requests for an interview went unanswered.
It is not just the opposition that has alleged corruption at a senior level. Khamis Kagasheki, an internationally respected former minister responsible for wildlife protection, last year promised to “name and shame people engaging in this menace”, adding that “this business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network.” Within months, however, he was out of a job because of abuses committed by soldiers and policemen involved in a crackdown on poaching.
The ivory trade is murky at the best of times. Mixed up with politics, it has become even harder to fathom. The government insists it is being smeared by the opposition, although Mr Kikwete admits that poaching is “a serious matter.” Evidence of his concern might be to investigate Mr Kagasheki’s charge that rich people and politicians are involved in the illegal trade, wherever that might lead.