Diplomatic indignation in ivory row

Spoils: Almost four tonnes of elephant tusks were found, hidden in shipments from Kenya and ­Tanzania, during an anti-smuggling operation in Hong Kong in October 2012. (AFP)

Spoils: Almost four tonnes of elephant tusks were found, hidden in shipments from Kenya and ­Tanzania, during an anti-smuggling operation in Hong Kong in October 2012. (AFP)

The Tanzanian government has dismissed the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report released last week that said Chinese diplomats and officials smuggled ivory out of Tanzania during President Xi Jinping’s state visit last year.

The EIA, a London-based nongovernmental organisation, published the report, Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants, which claims that Chinese diplomats smuggled tonnes of ivory during the state visit and the Tanzanian government was aware of it.

The report was picked up by the international media and created a public relations frenzy for Tanzania.

Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Lazaro Nyalandu said the report had been “cooked up” and that it was “illogical” that the president’s plane could have been used to carry ivory.

The EIA reports says that during the state visit the price of ivory on the black market doubled to as much as $700 a kilogram because of the high demand created by the officials.

“Such aircraft are usually heavily guarded and surrounded by hundreds of people, leaving no room for any foul play,” Nyalandu said.

A spokesperson for the ministry of home affairs, Mkumbwa Ally, said the EIA report was weak “as it did not clearly show how and where the Chinese diplomats hid the ivory”.

“Where could they smuggle more than 30 tonnes of ivory? The thing that you don’t understand is that their luggage is searched, [everything is searched] except their bodies,” he said.

Ally said: “If the Chinese could carry anything, it could be seen in the cameras at the airport and they would be caught by now.”

But, according to diplomatic protocol, neither diplomats nor their luggage are searched.

Regarding China’s alleged involvement in ivory smuggling, Ally said poaching was an international issue and not only a Tanzania-China issue. “Even America is still struggling to combat drugs but the truth is that many African countries are still troubled by poaching and smuggling,” he said.

The EIA said this week it stood by the report.

EIA’s response
An EIA wildlife campaigner, Shruti Suresh, responded to the Tanzanian government’s denial, saying the NGO had given the report, and other information detailing how poaching is being done, to the Tanzanian government’s ministry of natural resources and tourism.

Suresh said the EIA had shared additional information in confidential intelligence briefings with enforcement authorities in Tanzania and China. The information spelled out how the traders operated and how systemic corruption in Tanzania is enabling the current massive scale of poaching and trafficking.

Suresh said the EIA also sent the report and additional information to the state forestry administration of China.
“We hope that they will fully investigate the findings in our report and intelligence briefings as there is a wealth of detail provided,” she said.

Pan Peng, the press counsellor of the Chinese embassy in South Africa, said that, according to Chinese laws, diplomats and officials were strictly forbidden to do anything that compromised their diplomatic status and were required to abide by international conventions. (See “China does its bit to fight illegal wildlife trade, says embassy”)

Tanzania’s chief secretary, ambassador Ombeni Sefue, said diplomatic immunity was an international law that allowed diplomats’ luggage to pass through international airports without being inspected.

Interpol’s Tanzanian branch has apparently red-flagged more than 30 Chinese believed to be responsible for poaching.

Its commissioner, Gustav Babile, said: “They are wanted for ivory poaching; we have red-flagged them in our websites. Some of them are wanted for other environmental criminalities.”

But Interpol’s website lists just two, Mingzhi Zhang and Deng Jiyun.

Tanzania National Park’s public relations manager, Paschal Shelutete, who was approached for comment, said: “Do you want us to oppose the government? If the government has denied it, it has denied it. Do not cause strife between us and the government.”

Elephant population declining
The EIA report says that the elephant population in Tanzania is fast decreasing. By the time President Jakaya Kikwete leaves office next year, the country’s population of elephants will have dropped to 55?000, from 142?000 when he took over in 2005, according to the EIA report.

Some media organisations have blamed government officials for allegedly aiding the Chinese to traffic the ivory.

The EIA said in a 2011 report that Tanzanian authorities appeared unwilling, or unable, to control the illegal trade because government officials were implicated.

But the chairperson of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, Abdulrahman Kinana, said the

EIA report was seeking to soil Tanzania and to damage its relationship with China.

“We have been saying that our relationship with China is of historical importance. Poaching can be done by anyone, not only Chinese.

“Or do you want us to name the Englishmen who are wanted or already executed for poaching?” he asked.

Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of Chadema, Tanzania’s main opposition party, said the CCM had shamed the country.

“Yes. They [CCM politicians] are among the poachers and they are also favouring those business tycoons who are involved in smuggling because they fund the party,” he said.

Mbowe said CCM leaders interfered in legal processes in order to get some poachers released.

The survival of the African elephant is clearly on the line. In 1930, there were between five- and 10-million on the continent but, because of poaching and habitat loss, half a million remain, according the EIA report.

A 2011 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) report indicates that, since 2009, most of the illegal ivory on the market has come from Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

Last year, it reported that most ivory consignments left through Tanzania’s and Kenya’s ports. The two countries together accounted for 16 of the 34 large-scale ivory seizures recorded from 2009 to 2011.

China does its bit to fight illegal wildlife trade, says embassy

We are gravely concerned about stories quoting the report by the United Kingdom-based nongovernmental Environmental Investigation Agency without showing any evidence that the Chinese diplomats and officials are involved in illegal trafficking of ivory in Tanzania. The Chinese embassy is strongly opposed to such groundless and irresponsible allegations. 

The Chinese government attaches great importance to wildlife protection, including elephants. China is firmly opposed to ivory smuggling and has enacted a series of laws and regulations and established a multidepartment joint law enforcement mechanism composed of departments of forestry, public security, and custom. 

China has also strengthened domestic market supervision, launched a number of crackdowns on smuggling of ivory and other wildlife products. 

In January the government destroyed 6.1 tonnes of illegal ivory publicly, which shows China’s resolve to combat illegal wildlife smuggling, and its efforts to enhance people’s awareness of wildlife protection. 

Apart from close co-operation of law enforcement in cracking down on such acts as smuggling, China has been helping elephant-inhabited countries with capacity building and funding for elephant-protection activities. 

During his recent visit to Africa in May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated China’s commitment to protecting wildlife and continued efforts in combating poaching and ivory smuggling. The premier also granted $10-million to Africa for better protection of Africa’s wildlife. 

As diplomats assigned to African countries, our task is to promote friendly relations and promote mutual understanding. 

Based on the facts mentioned, we request your newspaper to publish our letter so that your valued readers can get a true picture of this issue. – Pan Peng, press counsellor of the Chinese Embassy, South Africa

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