Tanzania has a stockpile of over 90 metric tonnes of ivory, the world's largest haul, which is estimated to be worth well over 400 billion/- on the global black market.
A common strategy adopted by many countries has been to destroy the stockpiles of ivory to send a message against the illegal trade.
A ban was imposed in 1989 prohibiting the international trade in ivory to reverse a rapid decline in the population of African elephants to no avail. Illegal hunting and killing of elephants continues to decimate elephant populations in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa despite the ban.
Kenya recently destroyed its ivory haul, prompting some conservationists to renew their call for Tanzania to follow suit.
But officials in Tanzania remain starkly divided about what to do with the country's stockpile.
Last Saturday, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta led conservationists in setting ablaze 105 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn at the Nairobi National Park. The haul was said to be worth some $180 million.
Many conservationists agree that Tanzania has a much bigger stockpile of ivory believed to be worth at least 400 billion/- on the black market.
The Kenyan move comes as a result of unwavering pressure from the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES).
Speaking separately to The Guardian yesterday, some Tanzanian conservationists urged the government to follow suit and destroy the country's ivory to send a clear message on the country’s new anti-poaching drive.
A manager with Tanzania Elephant Protection Society (TEPS), Ande Mallango, said the onus was with the government to verify to the world its commitment to fight poaching.
“We need to burn our ivory so that the world clearly understands our commitment to fight poaching,” he said.
Apart from destroying the ivory, Mallango also advised the government to go further and revoke hunting licenses and permits in national parks and game reserves, saying wildlife hunting promotes poaching.
The ivory room at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism headquarters in Dar es Salaam reportedly stores between 90 to over 118,000 tonnes of ivory, according to some estimates.
Tanzania's previous request to CITES to sell the ivory stockpile was flatly rejected.
The government’s conventional argument was that it should be allowed to sell the ivory to international markets to raise funds to conserve existing elephants.
Sheni Lalji, a director at Game Frontiers of Tanzania, told The Guardian that torching of the stockpiles was not a remedy to the poaching menace in the country.
Instead, the hunter suggested that the trophies should remain in the safe hands and custody of the government at the ivory room.
“There is no point in setting the ivory ablaze while knowing that it could benefit the country once it gets sold,” he said.
“I think there have been too many emotions on this issue without taking into account the real situation on the ground.”
According to Lalji, Kenya had bowed down to pressure from the international community by destroying the ivory stockpile, saying Tanzania does not need to follow suit.
“The government needs to strengthen anti-poaching strategies and ensure that there is a sustainable utilization of our elephants and not destroy its ivory stockpile.”
Sharing similar sentiments, Dr Ernest Mjingo, a wildlife veterinarian with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), said it made sense for the Tanzanian government to sell the ivory stockpiles rather than setting it ablaze.
“Who knows how much the country will get in terms of financial resources if the ivory is not burnt and destroyed,” queried the researcher.
On her part, the chief executive officer of the Hotels Association of Tanzania (HAT), Lathifa Sykes, wondered why the country was reluctant in destroying the ivory stockpile.
“Our government has traditionally not shown any effectiveness in fighting poaching ... if we are truly determined to show the world that we are against the ivory trade, we should destroy the stockpile without further delay,” she said.
According to Sykes, Kenya had sent a strong signal to the world by burning its ivory.
Tanzania has been the hardest-hit country in the ongoing elephant poaching upsurge, according to conservationists.
Tanzania's elephant population now stand at around 43,000, following a dramatic loss of 60 per cent of the animals in only five years from previous populations of 109,000.
Okoa Tembo wa Tanzania, a group of Tanzanians campaigners, recently sent a petition to President Magufuli urging him to destroy the country's ivory stockpile.
"We call on the government of Tanzania to follow the example of our neighbours and other African countries and make history by destroying its ivory stockpile, which is even larger than Kenya's," said the group.
"Of course, it is important to conduct an inventory of the stockpile and allow for scientific research for law enforcement purposes before its destruction. Any ivory samples needed for prosecution in court cases should be stored, but destroyed immediately after completion of the case."
Critics say the mass burning of ivory stockpiles is creating scarcity on the market and causes prices to go up, which will in turn only encourage poachers to kill more elephants.
Another school of thought is that selling ivory stockpiles on the market lower demand for the product by bringing more ivory in the market, hencing forcing prices to drop.
The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Prof Jumanne Maghembe, recently told the United States ambassador to Tanzania Mark Childress that the country had no plans whatsoever to destroy its ivory stockpile.
US wildlife officials say destroying stockpiles of illicit ivory is an effective way to curb a trade that threatens to wipe out elephant populations across the world.
However, Maghembe told the US ambassador that the country’s stockpiled ivory was still useful for scientific research and as legal evidence in criminal cases against elephant poachers.
Since 2011, there have been 11 ivory destruction events in 10 countries - Kenya, Gabon, the Philippines, India, United States, China (including Hong Kong), France, Chad, Belgium, and Portugal.