While the crisis is complex, with root causes in chronic poverty, the absence of sustainable economic alternatives and a burgeoning demand for wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn, the wheels of this multi-billion dollar industry are liberally greased by bribery and corruption at all levels of government in several African countries.
Even a cursory summary of the epidemic’s lowlights, makes for depressing reading:
Fast becoming Africa’s chief source of illicit ivory, Tanzania has lost two-thirds of its elephants to poaching since 2006. Collusion between corrupt government officials and criminal syndicates has been identified as the root cause. Game rangers provide critical information to poachers, police officers supply guns, Tanzanian Revenue Authority officers release containers of ivory for export, and ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party functionaries offer high-level protection for trafficking operations.
In 2012 a list of individuals involved in elephant poaching, including prominent politicians, was handed to President Jakaya Kikwete. The following year, four CCM members of parliament, among them the party’s Secretary-General, Abdulrahman Kinana, were named for their involvement. None of the individuals implicated have been investigated further or arrested.
In 2013, Tanzania’s Auditor General criticised the Ministry for Natural Resources and Tourism’s Wildlife Division for the significant quantities of stockpiled elephant tusks that have gone missing while in its care and for under-reporting official poaching figures.
Earlier this year, police officers supplied poachers with weapons and access to the famed Selous Reserve, taking delivery of the ivory once five elephants had been killed.
A recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report notes that “the highest levels of the Tanzanian government” are ultimately responsible for the decimation of the country’s elephant population by failing to ensure that wildlife laws are enforced and by not achieving higher conviction rates when cases are brought to court.
In 2013, Zambia’s Minister of Tourism and Arts, dismissed Edwin Matokwani, the Director-General of the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) along with a number of his colleagues on the basis of malpractice and corruption involving commercial hunting companies.
In the same year, Defence Minister, Geoffrey Mwamba, was caught at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport with three large bags of elephant tusks. He was released without charge after claiming diplomatic immunity. The tusks were confiscated by ZAWA, but reappeared in the luggage of a Chinese diplomat at the same airport two days later. No further action was taken.
Poaching incidents reported to the Mozambican police and border guard are rarely followed up, cases are known to be squashed pending the payment of bribes, and offenders are released uncharged after a “deposit” of cash has been made.
A “web of official complicity” involving administrative, judicial and tax authorities in the northern provinces of Niassa and Cabo Delgado, including the Criminal Investigation Police, prosecuting attorneys and the courts, facilitates the industrial-scale elephant slaughter in the region. Government officials are known to have supplied poachers with high-calibre weapons, provided access to protected areas and smoothed the transportation of ivory and rhino horn out of the country.
In 2010, twelve elephants were killed in Mecula District using weapons supplied by police. The following year, eight Frontier Guard members were caught selling 350 kilograms of seized ivory. Instead of facing punishment, they were transferred to a different area.
Since 2012, several tonnes of ivory have disappeared from Mozambique’s official stockpile. High-level collusion by government officials is suspected.
The ruling Frelimo party stands accused of using the proceeds of ivory sales from more than 50 elephants poached in Niassa National Reserve with military equipment to fund its 2012 congress in Pemba.
In return for a bribe, airport customs officers in Maputo are known not to search luggage leaving the country, while customs and police officers provide similar services for containers shipped out of Pemba by Chinese timber companies. Cabo Delgado police commander Dora Manuel Majante has been accused of facilitating the passage of ivory and other contraband through Pemba’s airport and harbour.
A considerable proportion of the hundreds of poachers arrested or killed in the Kruger National Park have been members of the Mozambican army, police and border guard.
Earlier this year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was asked to assist in the apprehension of high-ranking government officials involved in illegal wildlife trafficking. No action was taken.
This month, more than a tonne of stockpiled ivory went missing from a Ugandan government vault. A local newspaper claims that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) officials in cahoots with traffickers are responsible for widespread ivory theft. Since then, six top UWA employees, including executive director Andrew Seguya, have been suspended pending the outcome of a police investigation.
Militias allied to the Sudanese government are alleged to engage in elephant poaching operations as far afield as Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), trafficking ivory via the government in Khartoum and its military.
Ending in 2005, the two-decade-long war between south and north Sudan reduced the local elephant population from more than 80 000 to less than 5000. Since then, ongoing internal military conflict between the official government army and rebel forces threatens to eradicate it altogether as soldiers butcher elephants and other wildlife for meat and ivory.
The DRC’s army is believed by many observers to be the leading poacher in the vast eastern regions of the country. Until leaving in 2011, Uganda’s occupying People’s Defence Force was also linked to poaching.
A number of key officials canvassed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 2012 consider corruption connected to wildlife crime to be rife in South Africa, particularly with regards to issuing of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and TOPS (Threatened or Protected Species) permits. Formal action against corrupt officials remains the exception.
Elite members of Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF are controlling increasingly large tracts of wildlife areas in the country and some are believed to be supplementing their foreign currency income through elephant and rhino poaching there.
In 2013, poachers allegedly linked to well-know senior ZANU-PF members, police officers and Zimbabwe Wildlife Management officials used cyanide to kill more than 100 elephants in Hwange National Park (HNP).
This year, the country’s last free-roaming elephant herd, which is supposedly protected from hunting and culling by a Presidential decree, has come under threat. Defying a government directive, a woman named Elisabeth Pasalk, whose brother is a hunting safari operator, has illegally claimed part of the herd’s home range, established a safari lodge and declared the area a ‘conservancy’ – a common euphemism for ‘hunting concession’. Conservationists believe that the takeover was supported by “political influence from high places”, that illicit hunting is part of Pasalk’s plans and that the Presidential Elephants are the intended target. The Zimbabwean government has done nothing about the situation.
Time to act
The evidence is overwhelming: African governments are complicit in the wholesale slaughter of the continent’s wildlife heritage.
A number of them have made public commitments to stem the poaching tide. Tanzania, for instance, is a signatory of the 2014 London Conference Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade which calls for zero tolerance on corruption and President Kikwete has recently spoken in favour of a moratorium on all ivory sales. Yet Kikwete’s government has shown little intention of turning these promises into reality and remains deeply implicated in the disaster.
What’s needed is the political will to take drastic action – to identify and investigate corrupt activities related to wildlife crime at every level of government, to remove corrupt individuals – many of them well known – from office and to prosecute them under the provisions of the criminal justice system.
The international community, including CITES, bears part of the responsibility. By not fighting corruption vigorously enough, not sanctioning governments known to be corrupt, not enforcing international law, not establishing a total ban on international and domestic trading in rhino horn, elephant ivory and other wildlife commodities, and not calling for the destruction of all government stockpiles of such goods, they too are complicit in the unfolding catastrophe.
In July, the EIA and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) called on the US government to implement trade sanctions against Mozambique for its complicity in the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in Southern Africa. President Obama’s government is yet to heed this urgent call.
Eradicating corruption will not end the disaster. But if we don’t stop the systemic corruption which is facilitating it, Africa’s poaching crisis will be terminal – an extermination order for rhinos, elephants, lions, pangolins and countless other irreplaceable species that will not survive the century in the face of unbridled human greed. DM
Photo: A picture made available on 24 June 2014 shows an elephant herd grazing on 19 June 2014 at the Kasigau wildlife migration corridor between Tsavo East and Tsavo West which is protected by Wildlife Works, Kenya, 19 June 2014. EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU
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