The roots of Tanzania’s ivory poaching crisis are deep and historic
By Professor Keith Somerville
The recent staggering decline in Tanzania’s elephant numbers, down by 60% in less than ten years (please see previous blog), has horrified conservationists: it demonstrates the dangers facing the 400,000-600,000 elephants remaining in Africa.
Prior to the start of European colonial occupation in the closing decades of the 19th century, what was then colonial Tanganyika (becoming Tanzania in 1964) held over 20 million elephants. The progressive decline in numbers results from shrinking habitat, massive growth in human populations and use of land for agriculture, and the killing of elephants for their tusks.
The commercial trade in tusks was at its height in the 19th and early 20th century; ivory trade expert, Esmond Bradley Martin, has estimated that between 1850 and 1914, 44,000 elephants were killed annually for ivory (1).
For much of the 19th century, Tanzania the epicentre of the ivory rush to feed markets in Europe, North America and India; it had a well-established ivory trading network which was originally established along the East African coast, from Lamu in northern Kenya to Sofala in Mozambique, run by Omani Arab traders who settled on the coast to trade in ivory, spices and slaves. They traded with African peoples such as the Nyamwezi of central Tanzania and the Yao of Mozambique, who supplied ivory and slaves in return for imported goods.
The demand for ivory led to the depletion of herds near the coast and the mounting of costly expeditions into the interior, staffed by hundreds of porters and armed retainers. The Arab merchants, and the community of what became known as coastal Swahilis (descendants of inter-marriage between the Arabs and local peoples) organised the caravans, hired porters and bought ivory from inland – or took it by force of arms.
Indian, British, German and American merchants all operated in Zanzibar buying ivory to meet growing demand from the newly prosperous capitalist class in industrialising Europe and the United States, as well as existing demand in Asia. The export of ivory from Zanzibar went up from around 24,000 tusks in 1860 to more than of 100,000 pa in 1894, by which time mainland Tanzania was under German colonial rule and Zanzibar was part of the British empire.
The colonial occupation of East Africa meant that the British in Zanzibar and the Germans in Tanzania (until it was mandated to Britain by the League of Nations after WWI) became the new overlords of the ivory trade. While Arab, Swahili and Indian traders bought and exported ivory, the colonial authorities ensured they also got their share of the proceeds. Gradually, the role of indigenous hunters declined as European sports and commercial hunters used colonialism to get priority access to big game in Africa.
Game departments were established by the British to control hunting, particularly by Africans, and provide ivory income for the colonial administrations. The establishment of protected reserves and national parks under colonialism served to further alienate local people from control over wildlife: Europeans could hunt legally, most Africans could not and were criminalized if they did, creating the divide between the white hunters and black poachers.
With Tanzanian independence in 1964, there was no major change in wildlife or hunting regulations. National parks and reserves became sources of tourist income, while in Tanzania legal hunting by commercial safari operators continued and trading ivory was still largely in the hands of the old, coastal trading communities. In 1970, the Tanzanian government declared a state monopoly over ivory, at a stroke cutting out legal commerce by the established traders, who simply took advantage of poor wages paid to government wildlife officials, the police customs and ports staff to set up networks of corruption that enabled them to continue in the trade as smugglers.
The officials retained a strong role in the ivory trade – but what was now an illegal one, teaming up with corrupt politicians to establish new, criminal syndicates to control the trade and profit from the growth in ivory prices in the 1970s and 1980s. They commissioned poachers to supply tusks to supply lucrative foreign markets.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s poaching continued with impunity which brought about by corruption at the highest levels of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, and local and national government institutions. This system of graft continues today, with the added problem of the growing Chinese involvement in the Tanzanian economy and the presence there of Chinese businessmen, technicians, workers and even diplomats, who play a role in the smuggling networks that now take ivory from Tanzania to buyers in East Asia.
Although there are periodic seizures of ivory and prosecution of syndicate ‘king-pins’, like the Chinese “Ivory Queen”, Yang Feng Lan, the system of corruption that enables poaching to continue is alive and well – which is more than can be said for tens of thousands of Tanzanian elephants killed for ivory.
- E.B. Martin, ‘The Great White Gold Rush’, BBC History, August 2001.
Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London, and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. Professor Somerville is author of ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’ (London, Hurst, 2016) and ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent’ (London, Penguin, 2017).