Prosecution of ivory trafficking ringleaders is now paying off

27Jun 2021
Editor
The Guardian
Prosecution of ivory trafficking ringleaders is now paying off

A decade ago, a wave of poaching swept across Africa. Poachers killed more than half of Tanzania’s elephant population between 2009 and 2014.

Once known as the world’s elephant killing fields, Tanzania appears to have halted the worst ivory poaching within its borders, making more than 2,300 arrests of poachers and traffickers over five years.

Investigators say that by the beginning of 2020 they had identified and penetrated at least 11 organised wildlife trafficking syndicates and arrested 21 “kingpins” — the high level leaders and organisers of the illegal trade, who profit most from it.

One of those, Yang Fenglan, a Chinese businesswoman known as the ‘Ivory Queen’, appealed her conviction at Tanzania’s High Court last month.

Conservation groups, including the wildlife trade monitor TRAFFIC, said Tanzania previously suffered poaching on an “industrial scale”, leading to a 60 per cent decline in its elephant population in just the five years between 2009 and 2014. The figures, from a government census, equate to a loss of more than 60,000 elephants. The IUCN categorises the African savanna elephant as Endangered.

The government says thanks to the work of a National Taskforce on Anti-Poaching (NTAP), which unites the wildlife and security sectors to target criminal networks, less than a quarter the number of poaching incidents were reported in its National Parks in 2019 than five years earlier. A government report sets out the specifics of 2,377 arrests.

Elephant populations in Tanzania have risen from 43,000 in 2014 to 60,000 in 2019, according to a presidential statement. More recent figures from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism state that the number of elephants in the Serengeti Ecosystem has risen from 6,087 in 2014 to 7,061 in 2020.

The national figures given in the government report appear to correspond to other data which suggest that Tanzania is no longer the epicentre of ivory poaching in Africa.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based NGO, said in December 2020 that its analysis of ivory seizures suggested that poaching had shifted from East Africa to Central and West Africa in the past five years.

Its “Out of Africa” report said that 87 tonnes of ivory seized worldwide between 1998 and 2014 was linked to Tanzania, making the country the global hotspot for ivory poaching during those years. But it said the picture changed between 2015 and 2019, when just less than five tonnes of seized ivory could be linked to Tanzania. By contrast, the figure for Nigeria during those years was more than 30 tonnes.

The report was compiled using analysis of seizure location, DNA analysis of the ivory, shipping route and the nationality of the suspect.

“Tanzania now is no longer seen as a major exit for ivory. It doesn’t mean it’s gone away completely. But the multi-agency approach was instrumental because we all know from lessons learned and from good examples in other places that having a multi-agency approach is the only way to deal with these problems, because one agency can’t deal with them alone.”

“[The traffickers] are fleet of foot, they exploit loopholes and weak governance, and so having international co-operation is key.”

She said that EIA’s undercover work across Africa suggested that trafficking gangs had been forced out of Tanzania to other countries.

“One [ivory] trader actually told our [undercover] guys that they had moved to Mozambique from Tanzania because it was becoming more difficult to operate in Tanzania because they had cracked down. The impact of the work that the task force were doing and beyond was having a positive impact.

It says that the National Taskforce on Anti-Poaching (NTAP) had identified and “blacklisted” a total of 3,541 suspects involved in the illegal wildlife trade at different levels since 2015.

But its primary focus has been on those at the highest levels of poaching. The report gives some details of the kingpins identified in its investigations, saying that on average each commanded about  5 to 10 people, consisting of collectors, transporters and middlemen.

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