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In November of last year the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a damming report that shows Tanzania as a key player in the illegal ivory trade. In 2013, the East African country reportedly lost 10 000 elephants, equivalent to 30 a day. The poaching is due to a toxic mix of unlawful syndicates, often led by Chinese nationals, and corruption among some Tanzanian government officials.


Action on the part of either the Chinese or Tanzanian government remains to be determined.

“We clearly believe that problems remain in Tanzania and China,” say Allan Thornton, Founder of EIA. “But we do believe we got the attention of the most senior members of government in both countries by the worldwide media attention that report got.”

In particular the intention of that report was to detail the extensive networks created by the criminal syndicates from China within Tanzania, particularly in Zanzibar. On the other hand there is evidence of really good police work in Dar Es Salaam that lead to the bust of a Chinese syndicate where they found two tonnes of ivory last year.

Holdalls of ivory seized from Chinese at Kenyatta International Airport © EIA

“There are many good people in both China and Tanzania that want to help to protect the elephants and the rhinos, and other endangered species,” adds Thornton. “Our goal is to work with those people and support them however we can.”

EIA’s intention is to encourage the governments in Tanzania and China to take meaningful action to eliminate the illegal ivory trade. In the case of the report, the ivory dealers in Tanzania who claimed to have sold thousands of kilos of ivory to Chinese diplomatic delegations have been active for almost a decade.

elephant carcass
The carcass of a poached elephant © Samburu Wildlife Reserve

“We haven’t heard of any consequence against them for making those statements to us. It’s not rocket science to track down and identify these key players. As noted in that report, the President of Tanzania was given a key list of players in the ivory trade in 2012, and so we still hope President Kikwete will take action against the big fish. And we also hope the President of China will take action to ban the domestic ivory trade. And that is our goal.” explains Thornton.

“Yes, but they’re not taking action,” I reply. “Tanzania’s president has been sitting on a blacklist of ivory dealers since 2012, and it’s now 2015. Do you really think things are getting better?”

“Yes, I do,” says Thornton. “We are living in unprecedented times. Just look at Yao Ming, a sports celebrity superstar in China, followed by tens of millions of people, last year went to the People’s Congress of China with a group of representatives from the congress and called for a domestic ban on ivory trade. It is important to see that Chinese society is changing very rapidly.”

China Ivory
The ivory room at the new Friendship Store in Dalian, China © EIA

Thornton explains that all of this has been bubbling up for quite some years, and even some of the pro ivory trade groups are now acknowledging that criminal syndicates are behind the ivory trade. This was no surprise to EIA because the first report released at CITES in 1989 named four of the main ivory syndicates; three Chinese and one Kenyan based.

“I think there is now a substantial understanding that ivory trade has been catastrophic for Africa’s elephants,” continues Thornton. “And I believe there are a growing number of people around the world that are becoming aware of this.”

China Elephant Ivory
The ivory room at the new Friendship Store in Dalian, China © EIA

Thornton also points out that trying to push change through the levers of government, with hundreds of other issues they’re grappling with, is a complex undertaking.

“We do believe that the elephants and rhinos will be protected again, and that is our goal. But we have to face the facts that we haven’t been able to control the trade. And people that keep saying we have to sell more ivory are living in some sort of parallel universe. All the evidence shows that we have not been able to ever regulate ivory trade in any sustainable manner. The solution is obvious. Let’s stop the trade, and let’s protect the elephants and rhinos for future generations, and help African countries to develop their economies.”

Time and Tide
Jamie Joseph

Jamie Joseph is a journalist and activist specialising in rhino poaching, with a specific focus on investigation into fraud, corruption and wildlife trafficking.