Anti-poaching report points an accusing finger at Chinese diplomats in Dar

Saturday November 08 2014

Both governments dismiss as baseless conservation agency’s report that says crooks used visit by Chinese president to smuggle ivory out of Tanzania. TEA GRAPHIC | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Tanzania is once again on the spot over poaching after a new report accused Chinese diplomats of smuggling ivory out of the country using the presidential plane during a state visit by their president.

The report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has angered the Tanzanian government, which reads mischief in it.

The government reacted by accusing the West of trying to “spoil the good relationship” between Tanzania and China. Foreign Minister Bernard Membe told parliament the sources of information quoted in the report were questionable, and that the agency had no proof.

According to EIA, the ivory was bought during the weeks leading up to the visit by President Xi Jinping in March 2013. It adds that ivory had been smuggled out of Tanzania in a similar manner during other high-level visits since 2010.

READ: Chinese diplomatic staff 'went on illegal ivory buying sprees'

Shruti Suresh, a wildlife campaigner at the agency, told The EastAfrican the syndicate had been unearthed through interactions with ivory traders during undercover investigations.


The traders informed the investigators that Chinese buyers began purchasing thousands of kilogrammes of ivory a fortnight to the presidential visit, and later smuggled the same in the diplomatic bag.

“All of this has been captured on video and the footage is available. Our report merely presents the information and observations of traders EIA met during investigations in Tanzania. The use of diplomatic bags for smuggling ivory has been reported in the past as well,” Ms Suresh said.

Ms Suresh said the agency had shared the report and evidence with the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism as well as with the State Forestry Administration of China.

“In addition, we have shared confidential intelligence briefings with enforcement authorities in both Tanzania and China. So far they have not contacted EIA directly to respond,” Ms Suresh said.

The EIA report also reveals some of the sophisticated trade routes used to smuggle out ivory. For example, in May 2012, about 359 tusks weighing around 1.5 tonnes were seized in Sri Lanka.

DNA analysis showed that the elephants were probably killed in the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. The ivory was taken from Tanzania, through Kampala in Uganda before entering the border town of Malaba and through to the Mombasa port. From there, it was shipped to Colombo, where it was seized. The shipment was en route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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But Tanzania’s government spokesman Assa Mwambene termed the report questionable.

“It is unfortunate that this institution should drag the Chinese government through the mud in its questionable report. How could the report fail to mention the name of its source but go ahead to mention the perpetrators? This is nonsense. We looked at the report’s findings and we feel that it’s useless. The allegations raised cannot in any way help fight poaching,” Mr Mwambene told the BBC.

Largest market

Making a statement in parliament, Mr Membe acknowledged that China was the largest market for the poached ivory — and that most of the poached ivory came from Tanzania — but defended the Chinese government, saying it was not directly involved in the illegal trade as it had supported different anti-poaching campaigns in the country.

The minister added that the Chinese delegation was in the country for less than a day during the state visit and could not have found time to visit different places to buy tusks.

He said information leading to the confiscation of a container of tusks in January 2014 at the Dar es Salaam port came from the Chinese government but that the report erred in claiming the consignment was seized while it was being loaded onto the Chinese naval fleet that had docked at the port.

“Why are such allegations being made after President Jakaya Kikwete has highlighted the successes of his recent state visit to China? These people do not want the Chinese government to build us the Bagamoyo port and fund the upgrading of the Central Railway; they don’t want the Chinese government to give us soft loans and build us vocational training institutions; they don’t want us to attract Chinese investors especially in oil and gas. They are jealous and hate the Chinese while they still depend on them; they take loans from them and trade with them but don’t want us to do so,” the minister said.

He said China’s State Forestry Administration’s decision to sign an agreement to help combat the illegal trade of wildlife products, in July 2013 inter-governmental meetings on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) showed the country’s commitment towards curbing the illegal trade.
But tourism and natural resources shadow minister Rev Peter Msigwa said his party Chadema was shocked by the revelations and asked the government to form an independent commission to investigate the claims.

The allegations had confirmed the opposition’s long-held suspicion about the close links between Chama cha Mapinduzi and the Chinese government.

READ: Chinese bribe in Dar, admits envoy

Reverend Msigwa said the opposition party acknowledged the strong ties that founding president Julius Nyerere built between the two countries but the decision by the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania Lu Youqing to attend a CCM political rally in September contrary to the Geneva Convention set a worrying trend that the Chinese were using the relationship for their own interests.

“Many public leaders facing corruption allegations were either released without charge or not investigated at all, which has taught us that anything can happen in this country and the culprits will get away with it. We want an independent commission formed to investigate the allegations and those responsible charged.

"The allegations have made us question China’s increased interest in Tanzania. While we acknowledge the importance of diplomatic ties between Tanzania and China, the allegations have made us suspect the Chinese government used its workers who built Tanzania Zambia Railway (Tazara) in the 1970s to exploit our natural resources,” he said.

China’s State Forestry Administration in July last year signed an agreement with Tanzania to help combat the illegal trade of wildlife products.

The Chinese government, through Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong, also dismissed the report as baseless.

Meng Xianlin, the executive director general of China’s Endangered Species Trade Authority, also criticised the report. Speaking to The New York Times, Xianlin denied that Chinese officials were involved in the illegal ivory trade during President Jinping’s visit and termed the report irresponsible.

“It is irresponsible for this organisation to spread lies about the Chinese government and its people without tabling any hard evidence,” Mr Meng said.

Tanzania has been in the spotlight over poaching, with wildlife activists accusing it of doing little to save its elephants.

For the past three years, the country has been lobbying Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) to try and sell its ivory stockpiles.

It is estimated that the country has a stockpile of 118,000 tonnes of legal ivory (elephants that die naturally) and confiscated illegal ivory, estimated to be worth $60 million.

READ: Alarm raised as ivory prices soar

The report titled “Vanishing Point – Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants,” reveals how Tanzania’s elephants are being slaughtered in vast numbers to feed a resurgent ivory trade in China.

“In December last year, an official visit by a Chinese naval task force to Tanzania’s capital city port of Dar es Salaam spurred a major surge in business for ivory traders, with one dealer boasting of making $50,000 from sales to naval personnel. In addition, a Chinese national Yu Bo was caught trying to enter the port with 81 illegal tusks intended for two mid-ranking Chinese naval officers. In our investigations, during the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tanzania, a boom in illegal ivory sales caused local prices to double to $700. The same happened during the February 2009 visit by the then Chinese president Hu Jintao,” the report says.

Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory in the world and China the largest importer of smuggled tusks. Covering 50,000 square kilometres, and despite being one of the largest protected areas in Africa, the world famous Selous Reserve has seen its elephant population plunge by 67 per cent in just four years, from 38,975 animals to 13,084.

The country has also lost more elephants to poaching during this period than any other country in the region, with a recorded 10,000 deaths in 2013, equivalent to 30 a day.

In June this year, the World Heritage Committee meeting held in Qatar inscribed the Selous Game Reserve on the List of World Heritages in Danger because of widespread of poaching.

Senior politicians from Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and well-connected businesspeople have been implicated in using their influence to protect ivory traffickers.

In 2013, then natural resources and tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki named four CCM MPs, all from the Selous area, said to be involved in elephant poaching. The report also names two senior CCM officials said to be facilitating the illegal trade through their companies.

In the report, EIA investigators were told by suppliers that some Chinese embassy staff were major buyers of their ivory, with an official of Tanzania’s Wildlife Department offering to sell the investigators tusks from the government’s ivory storeroom and to put them in touch with a dealer who could provide ivory from the Selous Reserve.

EIA executive director Mary Rice said the report shows clearly that without a zero tolerance approach, the future of Tanzania’s elephants and its tourism industry are extremely precarious.

Last week, while officiating at the Regional Summit to stop Wildlife Crime and Advance Wildlife Conservation, Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Lazaro Nyalandu said that his country had recorded great success in fighting poaching as there were zero elephant killing in the Selous Game Reserve in the three months leading to October.

“Tanzania has formulated a National Strategy to Combat Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade in order to intensify the war against poaching and all forms of wildlife related crime,” Mr Nyalandu said.

East Africa is the biggest source region of illegal ivory, especially Kenya and Tanzania.

READ: Ivory curse: Poachers focusing on East Africa

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has found that between 2009 and 2012, Tanzania was the country of export for 37 per cent of large ivory seizures, followed by Kenya with 27 per cent. Last year, more than 150 Chinese citizens were arrested across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, for smuggling ivory.