At first he was coy. ‘Yes my brother,’ Salim the dealer smirked. ‘How many kilos you want?’ It had taken us only a day to find a man in Tanzania who would sell us ivory tusks from poached elephants. We met Salim in a Dar es Salaam hamburger joint and the whole exchange was ridiculously easy. I asked him: ‘How many kilos have you got?’
‘I have 50, 100, 200 kilo. How much you want?’
‘How about 200 kilos?’ I challenged. Salim licked his lips. At Tanzanian prices, this was worth $24,000. On the international black market, it could fetch $200,000. That meant dozens of dead elephants.
This week CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) quashed an appeal by African countries to relax a 20-year trade ban in ivory. Many conservationists argue that keeping ivory off the market will kill the trade in dead elephants’ tusks, but there is nothing to prove that on the ground in Tanzania.
But even with a trade ban, what I witnessed with my TV producer Alex Nott while filming in East Africa suggests that the elephant population is in freefall. Tanzania’s wildlife chief Erasmus Tarimo recently called poaching in the Selous — the country’s biggest game reserve — ‘minimal’. But by the government’s own figures, the Selous has ‘lost’ 31,000 elephants in just three years.
The Selous still has 40,000 surviving elephants, but when I visited this huge wilderness I became sickened by seeing so many fresh elephant carcasses: bullet-riddled, heaving with maggots, skulls hacked up with axes where poachers extracted the tusks. And what astonished me was that this was going on under the noses of foreign tourists, each of them paying a fortune to visit Tanzania’s game parks.
Elephants are a ‘flagship’ species for wildlife tourism — Tanzania’s biggest foreign exchange earner. Tourism accounts for one fifth of the national GDP in one of the world’s most impoverished countries. If the elephants vanish, so will the tourists, and Tanzanians would have even fewer prospects of digging their way out of extreme poverty. The allegation is that corrupt officials are either directly involved or implicated in poaching.
‘I think the wildlife department know exactly what’s going on here and if they’re not doing it, they’re sanctioning it,’ a safari operator in the Selous told me. This man had seen hundreds of elephants poached and had his life threatened for wanting to talk about it. I asked if top officials were involved.
‘I don’t think you can take this much ivory out of a park like this without some very well-placed people running block for you,’ replied the operator. Back in Dar es Salaam I went to ask Tanzania’s government officials.
‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t say anything unless I get the authority,’ said senior wildlife officer Obedi Mbangwa. As it happened, after obtaining official accreditation ($1,000), multiple letters and several visits to the Wildlife HQ, a female official had summoned us to an interview that very morning. ‘What she said is not what she meant,’ said Mbangwa.
Such doublespeak is routine in Tanzania, a country still ruled by the North Korean-inspired ruling Revolutionary party — which hopes to win national elections again this year after 49 years in power. Here, officials in Mao suits still call each other ‘ndugu’, or ‘comrade’. But outside the wildlife department, the car park was filled with very expensive-looking vehicles.
The next day we met Salim and another dealer, Daudi, at a petrol station. They got in our car and Daudi produced a tusk that still had dried blood on it. I asked, ‘Do many mzungus [white people] buy these, or is it mainly the Chinese?’
‘All the time the Chinese come. Many, yes! Yes!’ exclaimed Daudi.
In the 1970s, thousands of Chinese labourers were imported to build a railway from Dar es Salaam to Zambia’s copper belt. They took down the portraits of Chairman Mao years ago, but today you see Chinese everywhere in Dar es Salaam. In Africa, there are now two million nationals from the People’s Republic. They are here to extract Africa’s resources: its oil, its minerals.
But they are also eating Africa. At the camps for Chinese road gangs there are piles of empty tortoise shells. Locals say there is not a dog for miles around, nor many donkeys. Elephant carcasses are mysteriously shorn of their testicles. China is ripping out Africa’s timber, the sandalwood, rhino horn, the fish, the seahorses, the sea slugs. Now Asia’s tigers are almost gone, Africa’s big cats are next: their claws and their vital organs being turned into medicines.
The new illegal ivory trade is booming because China’s middle classes want to buy ivory trinkets like chopsticks. Apart from spreading poverty, elephant poaching is also behind the proliferation of illegal guns across Africa, fuelling ethnic bloodletting. In northern Kenya we had recently encountered an elephant body spattered with bullets, and 200 metres away a site where 62 people were massacred in a tribal raid several months ago. British defence sources estimate there are 200,000 illegal rifles in Kenya. Ivory dealers hand out many of them on credit to poachers, who then use them in tribal raids.
I am told that many Chinese believe elephants’ tusks are like teeth that can be removed without killing the animal. I wondered what middle-class Chinese would think if they knew they were driving tribal conflict in Africa.
In Africa these days it is hard to compete with the Chinese. But back in the car I did try boasting to Daudi and Salim. ‘We’re serious buyers,’ I said.
‘We’re going to my friend’s home,’ Daudi revealed. ‘To show you something.’ They had seemed suspicious. I worried about leaving the safety of a public place with these gangsters. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked. Daudi replied, ‘Yeah, we’re not prepared to show you with many people. And this place is where we do many business.’
We entered a compound, walked past piles of rubbish, a child playing in the dust. A man working as a lookout put down his broom and led us inside. I could hear the voices of others upstairs and several times while we were in the house calls came through to Salim’s phone. ‘Yeah, they’re still looking,’ he told them.
We were shown a pile of bloody tusks, poorly carved ivory figurines and vulgar trinkets. I asked, ‘How do the Chinese get it out?’
‘The Chinese go to the airport and pay a bribe. The most important thing is money. If you have money, it’s easy.’
‘You’ve got some friends here that can organise it?’
‘Yeah, my friend works at the airport. Security. Here, no problem, here the problem is only money. Without money, you can’t do anything.’
‘Yeah, he’s not the manager, he’s security. They want money.’
Their biggest customer, they said, was a Chinese man who bought 200 kilos at a time. ‘He’s VIP,’ said Daudi.
‘VIP?’ I queried. ‘Is he a diplomat — at the embassy here?
‘Yeah. Yeah. Chinese government.’ Daudi said the Chinese VIP used his diplomatic bag to smuggle ivory out of Tanzania. ‘Nobody checks,’ he said.
Then he claimed that last year Chinese officials who flew into Dar es Salaam accompanying President Hu Jintao on his state visit to Tanzania used it as a chance to buy illegal ivory.
‘You know when President of China, Hu J
intao, was coming to Tanzania… remember? They come to take many things here…’ I was surprised and asked, ‘When Hu Jintao visited here, they went away with a lot of ivory?’
‘Yeah,’ said Daudi. ‘But that was not for Hu Jintao, it was the whole group. He didn’t have a chance to visit. Then they go direct to the airport because VIP, no one checks your bags, you just carry.’ Daudi claimed it was a profitable day.
I asked, ‘How much did you charge?’
‘$1,000 for one tusk.’
Daudi was warming to me. He appeared to think we might be big buyers. He now made us a truly amazing offer.
I asked him, ‘How many kilos can you get?
‘As many as you want,’ Daudi said. ‘Even if you say 1,000 kilos.’
Daudi said he had ‘many friends’ and he just needed to phone round the villages on the margins of Tanzania’s game parks and reserves. It would take a month.
We made our excuses and left. We did not want to fuel ivory poaching. But there are plenty of other buyers across Africa and I wondered what hope there is if buying a tonne of ivory is so easy.
Aidan Hartley covers the new ivory war in Channel 4’s Unreported World: End of the Elephant? at 7.35 p.m. on Friday 26 March.
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