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Barefoot and handcuffed, five men climbed from the Toyota pickup that brought them from deep in the African bush to the anonymous city-centre compound that houses Tanzania’s elite and secretive Anti-Poaching Task Force.
Caught red-handed hours earlier with a .357 hunting rifle, a set of scales and 58kg of ivory, the suspects were seated on the ground as police emptied a battered suitcase, laying out the ivory piece by piece, re-assembling tusks that were cut up with a hacksaw for ease of concealment.
Thirteen in all – seven dead elephants.
The largest tusk when complete weighed over 11kg and likely belonged to a mature bull of at least 30 years old. The smallest tusks, a fraction of the size, were taken from a baby.
“They shoot the baby first,” I was told. “Elephants are very sociable, they look after each other. If the baby is shot the adults will come to try and help. That way the poachers can get the whole group.”
The haul amounted to seven dead elephants
“It’s all fresh, new,” said one of their policemen holding up a tusk. “You can tell by the smell.”
The oldest man was identified as the shooter. For 1kg of ivory he would have been paid 20,000 Tanzanian shillings, or £7.10p. The haul in the suitcase would have netted him over £400, a fortune in rural Tanzania.
But the real profits in ivory are made elsewhere – by the middlemen, the exporters and the powerful figures who protect them – by the time it gets to China, just 1kg of ivory can fetch as much as £1,400.
I was allowed to ask them one question: “Why?” One of the men looked down at the ground and replied for them all: “I have no money, I needed the money.”
The economy is booming, tourism contributes over 12 percent but two-thirds of Tanzania’s largely rural population still lives on less than £1 a day.
The villages adjoining the national parks and game reserves never see the thousands spent by rich foreigners on safari. There, deep in the bush, elephants are regarded more as a danger to crops than a vital part of the nation’s heritage.
And for every poacher arrested, there is another ready to take his place.
With support from PAMS Foundation, an NGO specialising in anti-poaching strategy, and from security firm Askari Maritime Logistics the Task Force hope to expand their operations.
“It’s a big success for the police, in terms of a police operation but in terms of conservation we have to acknowledge that more elephants have been killed,” said Michel Lanfrey, from Askari.
“For real progress we need to have proper intelligence-led operations across the country. By tackling the problem this way, we can disrupt poaching operations in a large area for many months.”
The Anti-Poaching Task Force specialises in such operations. Using techniques learned from the fight against terrorists and drug cartels, the team works in secret to identify every part of a poaching network before they move in and make arrests.
Such networks are large and complex. A shooter will be equipped with weapons and ammunition by a sponsor and accompanied in the field by a navigator, a tracker, tusk removers, and armed security men.
This killing team can spend weeks in the bush backed up by a support group of cooks, porters, drivers and others who conceal the ivory in temporary hides.
Then there are middlemen, buyers, smugglers – and all along the way, there are officials who are bribed to help or to turn a blind eye.
Identifying a poaching network and securing evidence for a successful prosecution requires painstaking investigative work, it takes time and resources, both of which are in short supply.
But the Task Force is optimistic.
“We have great experience in this kind of work. We are making a big difference. I am energised,” their commander told me.
“With more resources this unit can have a huge impact,” said Mr Lanfrey.
“If they could extend their approach, expand their intelligence-led policing operations across the country we could reduce poaching by sixty or seventy percent. I truly believe that.”
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