The hunting outfits, Green Mile Safari Co. Limited (GML) and Wengert Windrose Safaris Tanzania Limited (WWS), are battling for control of the hunting rights for the wildlife-rich Lake Natron Game Controlled Area in the country’s northern tourist circuit.
Green Mile is partly owned by Sheikh Abdulla Bin Mohammed Bin Butti al-Hamed, a member of the United Arab Emirates ruling family, while Wengert Windrose is part of the Friedkin Conservation Fund, a trust controlled by a wealthy American family.
The allocation of hunting blocks in Tanzania has long been dogged by allegations of corruption and both companies have raised questions over the manner in which their dispute is being handled at government level, although state officials have denied the existence of any graft in the affair.
The government suspended Green Mile's hunting operations in Tanzania in 2014 after a now-infamous video surfaced showing alleged rampant abuses of the country's wildlife legislation and regulations in a hunting expedition by the company, including hunting with automatic weapons, capturing baby zebras, killing female animals, running over animals with a truck, and letting children participate in hunting.
However, the government in May this year somewhat surprisingly restored Green Mile's hunting license despite the continuing international outrage over the alleged wildlife abuses documented in the video.
This has led to fresh allegations of deep-rooted corruption in the country's big game hunting industry, with observers noting that the decisions to revoke and then reinstate Green Mile's license were made by different tourism ministers.
When the license was cancelled after the controversial video was leaked in 2014, Lazaro Nyalandu held the tourism ministry portfolio in the government of ex-president Jakaya Kikwete. The recent reinstatement was sanctioned by Nyalandu's successor in the ministry, Prof. Jumanne Maghembe.
SO WHY DID THE GOVT MAKE A U-TURN?
According to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Maj. Gen. Gaudence Milanzi, any allegations of corruption in the government's move to restore Green Mile's hunting license are unfounded.
The decision to "lift the suspension” was based solely on the fact that the company has not been formally convicted by any local court of breaking the country's wildlife laws, Milanzi told The Guardian in an interview.
“(The Wildlife Conservation Act) empowers the minister to cancel the allocation of a hunting block on the instance where a person or company allocated a hunting block has been convicted of an offence under the Act," he said.
“…No decision in (court) cases has declared the allocation or ownership of Green Mile over the Lake Natron Game Controlled Area East is illegal or invalid,” he further explained.
The PS said the 2014 suspension of Green Mile’s hunting license in 2014was based on allegations of various violations of the wildlife conservation law committed by the company.
"The violations cited, among others, were hunting animals not listed in the hunting permit, molesting juvenile animals and chasing animals in vehicles," he said.
"In the meantime, the government is taking legal action against the professional hunter and game scouts identified in the videos for allowing unethical conduct during the hunting expedition," he added.
According to Milanzi, professional hunters and game scouts are by law responsible for ensuring that proper procedures are followed during hunting expeditions.
US AMBASSADOR ENTERS THE FRAY
The US company Windrose Safaris has meanwhile complained that Green Mile has now been given a concession on hunting land in the Lake Natron Game Controlled Area which was originally allocated to Windrose.
This prompted the intervention of the US ambassador to Tanzania, Mark Childress, who sent the government a written warning that the move “would cause grave damage to our mutual interest in deepening US investment in Tanzania.”
According to the letter addressed to attorney general George Masaju and seen by The Guardian, Childress said he was “shocked” that Green Mile had been given a hunting license “after committing a series of very serious violations of the Wildlife Conservation Act.”
A group of US members of congress has also written to US president Barack Obama complaining against the decision by Tanzanian authorities to reinstate Green Mile's license at the expense of Windrose Safaris.
But according to Milanzi, the laws and regulations governing hunting land allocations apply to all companies, whether local or foreign.
“The law grants 15% of all hunting blocks to foreign-owned companies during the allocation process. The Friedkin Conservation Group, a well-established entity with a good conservation record in the country, owns two sister companies in Tanzania, that is Game Trackers Safaris (TGTS) and Wengert Windrose Safaris," the PS told The Guardian.
"The two companies own a total of seven hunting blocks, including Lake Natron Game Controlled Area North (formerly North South). In addition, they also control Mwiba Wildlife Ranch and Makao Wildlife Management Area,” he added.
He said the ministry had not received any complaints from Friedlin Conservation “or any other foreign-owned companies regarding irregularities in the provision of services.”
FALLING GOVT REVENUES
Big game hunting is a big business in Tanzania where hunting outfits reportedly rake in millions of dollars from wealthy tourists who are prepared to pay for expensive safari expeditions. Safari hunts usually cater to a small but wealthy clientele of big-game hunters.
However, the government's revenues from the tourist hunting industry have been steadily declining over the past five years, raising questions over the sustainability of the industry.
Said Milanzi: "The highest contribution (to government revenue) was recorded in the 2010/11 hunting season when a total of $23,536,347 was collected from tourist hunting. However, there has been a decrease of revenue collection from tourist hunting in the recent years whereby in 2014/15 only $16,277,273 was collected."
"The decrease is due to a number of reasons, including among others, the global campaign against trophy hunting, especially for big cats and elephants. Other reasons are deterioration of the quality of hunting blocks due to human encroachment, livestock incursions inside game reserves and climate change to name only but are few."
The tourism ministry PS defended commercial trophy hunting in the country, describing it as a useful tool for raising funds for wildlife conservation if properly managed.
"When hunting is done sustainably, it helps to stabilize and promote growth for the wildlife population. Local communities get benefits from hunting, including revenue for the village governments," he said.