The nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a report Thursday detailing the criminal activities behind Tanzania’s elephant poaching crisis. Most notable in the 35-page report, titled “Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption, and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants” (PDF), is evidence that Chinese government officials have directly participated in the country’s illegal ivory trade.
In the past five years, Tanzania has lost half of its elephants to poaching. “And seizure data confirms China’s position as by far the largest single destination for illicit ivory,” the report says. According to an EIA press release on the report, “Chinese-led criminal gangs are conspiring with corrupt Tanzanian officials to traffic huge amounts of ivory.” The group says that Tanzania is unique in that virtually all ivory is smuggled out of the country through one of three known ports. There remains little effective intervention, but undercover EIA investigators have been visiting the country since 2006 to create a fuller picture of Tanzania’s massive ivory market.
One of those operations involved a visit to the Mwenge Carvers’ Market, a known ivory-trading hub in the port of Dar es Salaam. Traders at the market told EIA investigators that ivory sales boomed in the weeks leading up to President Xi Jinping’s March 2013 visit to Tanzania. The traders claimed that Xi’s delegation of government officials and businesspeople purchased enough ivory to increase the local price. That ivory was allegedly loaded into diplomatic bags on the presidential plane at the time of the visit.
The Chinese government vehemently denies the accusations. “The report is groundless, and we express our strong dissatisfaction,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told the Associated Press.
In 2010, a journalist detailed similar incidents of Chinese officials smuggling Tanzanian ivory after interviewing dealers. Government officials can smuggle ivory undetected because, for high-profile visitors, “no one checks your bags, you just carry,” a trader named Daudi told the reporter.
Recent EIA recent investigations have found that ivory is still in high demand in China, where it is “frequently used as gifts for the political and business elites as a nonfinancial bribe.” The new report calls for tougher enforcement, arguing that although Chinese agencies have started cracking down on smuggling operations in recent years, “the amount of illegal ivory seized represents at best only about 5 percent of the contraband evading detection.”