Chinese merchants and diplomats, and the African officials whom they easily manage to corrupt, are helping to destroy sub-Saharan Africa’s remaining elephants. Already, Africa’s once massive herds of savannah elephants have been reduced from several million to 400,000, with 30,000 being poached annually – for their tusks. In Tanzania alone, where elephants were once abundant, only 55,000 remain. In 2005, there were about 142,000 elephants there, so roughly 10,000 of the big black mammals are being killed each year solely in Tanzania.
Slaughtering African elephants for Chinese and other Asian markets has long been illicit, but extremely profitable. Those profits have intensified corrupt practices everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, not least in hitherto seemingly placid Tanzania. Officials throughout that nation are no strangers to bribe-taking and embezzlement, but Chinese avarice is making the wages of corruption that much richer and more secure.
In March of this year, just before Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Dar es Salaam, thousands of pounds of poached ivory was assembled and later transferred to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane. Presumably, Mr. Xi knew nothing about his return cargo but – according to the reputable London-based Environmental Investigation Agency – members of his vast delegation were eager buyers of Tanzanian raw ivory even though their accelerated demand had shrunk the available supplies so much that prices in the Tanzanian marketplace doubled to $32,000 per pound. (China strongly denies the truth of the agency’s report.)
Possibly because the Chinese government has publicly confiscated and destroyed caches of ivory within China, the price per pound of ivory in China has tripled since 2010. Wealthy Chinese (and Vietnamese and Malaysians) believe that ground-up ivory has restorative qualities, and helps prevent cancer. Chinese of all backgrounds also appreciate the status-enhancing effects of well-carved ivory jewelry and trinkets.
Throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, the arrival of Chinese entrepreneurs and many officials since about 2006 has coincided with a great surge in the poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses. In Tanzania, where trade in elephant tusks and ivory is strictly forbidden, Chinese middlemen have employed poachers to decimate elephant herds across the country, especially in the vast Selous National Park, where elephant numbers declined between 2009 and 2013 by 67 per cent.
Game rangers have become accomplices of African poachers and Chinese middlemen. According to Tanzania’s former minister of natural resources and tourism, local “rich people and politicians” have colluded to supply China with what it wants – for a price. Using hidden cameras, investigators have photographed and taped Chinese and Tanzanian smugglers buying and selling illegal ivory. “Even if they kill all the African elephants,” one Chinese middleman said, “it won’t be enough.”
A year ago, in Dar es Salaam, the local police found 706 tusks, large amounts of cash, scales, licence plates and a minibus with a secret compartment for hiding poaching results. Three Chinese supposed seafood exporters were caught packing tusks in sacks under quantities of shells and garlic. A month after that incident, a small Chinese naval fleet entered the harbour of Dar es Salaam for cultural exchanges and, as it transpired, for ivory purchases. A man named Yu Bo was arrested entering the port with 81 tusks. He was fined $5.6-million and sentenced to 20 years in jail.
If Chinese merchants and officials buy, Tanzanians poach and provide. According to in-country and international reports, even the Tanzanian army is in cahoots with smugglers. Soldiers rent their guns to poachers. Sometimes soldiers themselves become poachers or traffickers. A regional police official discovered that his immediate deputy was a key smuggler. The deputy in turn implicated politicians in big cities to whom he transferred his illicit goods.
But other than Mr. Yu, hardly anyone has been prosecuted, much less imprisoned. The Economist claims from its own investigations that persons high up in Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM ) party are involved. It has named names, including a businessman and donor to the party with concessions adjacent to the Selous Park who also runs an air-transport service. Another suspect is the CCM’s Harvard-educated secretary-general and former minister of defence. A ship that he owned was found in Vietnamese waters in 2009 filled with 6.2 tons of ivory. Some of these allegations have even been raised in Tanzania’s parliament, so far to no effect.
Transparency International, which in 2013 rated Tanzania’s absence of corruption 111 out of 177 countries globally, reports that “corruption is rampant” in the country. Periodically, Tanzania’s presidents have declared “war” on corruption. But, despite various National Anti-Corruption Strategy and Action Plans, corruption swells. Transparency International refers to the “low ethical standard” of politicians and companies.
In October, twelve international donors suspended nearly $500-million in budget support for the strained Tanzanian government because senior officials had illegally taken funds from the central bank to provide working cash to a private energy company searching for natural gas deposits. The chair of parliament’s public-accounts committee reported that high-ranking ministerial officials had colluded with businessmen to transfer $122-million from an account in the central bank to private accounts overseas – a common method of laundering illegal profits.
The public-accounts committee chair also indicated that the businessmen implicated in the scheme had been selling over-priced electricity to the state for decades. Power shortages are common in Tanzania and have occurred frequently for at least 20 years. “There is no story of power in … the energy sector,” said an opposition leader, “without corruption.”
The same might be said for every one of Tanzania’s policy and service sectors. That is why Chinese entrepreneurs have found it so easy, and so profitable, to purloin the country’s ivory in cahoots with indigenous politicians and officials. China’s demand drives the destruction of elephant herds, but so does the avariciousness of powerful Africans.
Under a slightly different title, this post was published in the Globe and Mail, Nov. 24, 2014