A senior official in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, who was part of the operation launched by former president Jakaya Kikwete in October 2013, said this week that some of the arrested poachers started naming ‘big names’ as their financiers and behind the ivory trade.
“It was at this stage that the human rights issue was raised in Parliament to save the heavyweight politicians from being arrested and their names made public,” the official told a two-day Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking Stakeholders Workshop held in Arusha.
The officer, who preferred anonymity fearing reprisals from his superiors, said lack of political will to fight poaching by the previous administration led to the suspension of the operation.
“We nearly arrested the kingpins of poaching including heavyweight politicians before the operation was halted,” he told the workshop organized by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and supported by GIZ, the German international development agency.
“Yes, there were pockets of human rights violations, but this was largely used as a smokescreen to halt the operation which was likely to come up with big results,” he added.
The official said he was optimistic that President John Magufuli’s administration had already shown political will to fight against poaching. “The current pace of convictions of poaching cases is testimony to President Magufuli’s political will to ending the poaching of wildlife,” said the official.
Then president Kikwete launched Operation Tokomeza Ujangili in October 2013 after the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), local police, special anti-poaching militias and wildlife rangers jointly went into action to flush out poachers of elephants and rhinoceros for their horns.
But in November 2013, a month later, Kikwete was forced to end the campaign following reports on human rights violations against innocent civilians.
The ensuing hot debate on human rights violations was first engineered by some members of Parliament meeting in Dodoma at the time.
President Kikwete sacked four government ministers following accusations of gross abuses committed by security forces during the operation.
At the time the operation was launched reports showed that the elephant population in Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest faunal reserves in the world located in southern Tanzania, had plummeted to just 13,000 from 55,000 previously.
Heri Lugaye, a criminal intelligence officer with Interpol, a network of police forces from countries all over the world, said the agency had identified five countries, namely Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique, as still notorious for poaching of wildlife.
“We are working closely with these countries on areas of intelligence and operations,” said Lugaye, a Tanzanian attached to the Interpol Regional Bureau for Eastern Africa based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
He said in the course of investigations, Interpol had established that Entebbe International Airport in Uganda and Kamuzu Banda International Airport in Malawi were now being used as entry points by poachers, especially from some Asian countries.
“Upon their arrival at these two major airports the poachers find their way to Dar es Salaam where the planning and execution of poaching is done,” Lugaye told The Guardian on the sidelines of the workshop.
The Interpol criminal intelligence officer said the global police body had come up with a project called Project Wisdom aimed at combating poaching and trafficking in ivory and rhinoceros horns.
“Interpol came up with this project after we recognized that wildlife crime had emerged as a major problem and had been grouped among other serious crimes like cybercrime, terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering,” said Lugaye.
He said the initial project plan was to establish in sub-Saharan Africa a comprehensive programme to effectively disrupt and dismantle major transnational crime syndicates engaged in the illegal trade of African elephant ivory and rhino horns.
He said priorities of the project for 2016-2017 would include promoting and supporting intelligence-led enforcement in member countries facing the challenge of addressing wildlife crime endangering biodiversity.
“We have seen, for instance in Tanzania, that they rely on traditional methods of intelligence like ambushing the residences of suspects at night. Intelligence should be done more scientifically,” said Lugaye.
Julie Thomson, head of TRAFFIC East Africa, said the workshop brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to assess current dynamics of wildlife trafficking.
Ms Thomson said the dynamics included sourcing, transit and consumer hotspots, strengths and weaknesses in enforcement, regional and international coordination efforts, investigations and prosecutions, as well as key drivers of trade and consumer markets.
She said over the past several years Tanzania has been experiencing significant challenges to its conservation of wild species, with poaching and trafficking now reaching critical levels.
Ms Thomson said results released in June 2015 of a countrywide elephant census conducted in 2014 showed that the population had decreased by about 60 per cent from 2009. “
The few remaining black rhinos require 24-hour armed protection and yet incidences of rhino poaching continue to be recorded,” she added.