The toxic legacy of Tanzania’s ivory

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.

  1. 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).

Posted in Conservation, East Africa, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ivory | Leave a comment

– 60%: a figure that stains Tanzania

Tanzania’s elephants suffer a staggering decline as corruption-driven poaching bites

By Professor Keith Somerville, author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa (Hurst, 2016)

Tanzania has one of the largest savannah elephant populations in Africa with an estimated 42,871 elephants, according to the Great Elephant Census report released in 2016, which is about 12% of the continent’s population.  This makes it all the more worrying for the future of elephants that since 2007, Tanzania’s elephant population has suffered a catastrophic decline of 60% in numbers – double the rate of decline of Africa as a whole.

Why such a staggering fall in numbers?  The answer is simple and is an indictment of  the country’s wildlife authorities, law enforcement system and government – corruption and poverty.

The killing of elephants, harvesting and smuggling of tusks is a complex but flexible network that operates with political protection and impunity from arrest for the king-pins of the criminal syndicates that work with international smuggling rings (that also trade in drugs, guns and people) to export poached ivory.  Added to this is the role of Chinese workers, diplomats and businessmen in exploiting the elephants and the opportunities for corruption to feed high demand for ivory in China and elsewhere in East Asia.

Underfunding of conservation, poor pay for wildlife department staff and ubiquitous corruption in the police, public bodies and among the political elite have created an environment in which the illegal ivory trade has thrived.  The criminal syndicates have bought political protection by bribing senior politicians and government officials, which has enabled them to commission poaching, supply guns and ammunition to poachers, make “safe” the smuggling of ivory within Tanzania and then work with corrupt port, customs and airport officials to smuggle the ivory out.

One recent Tanzanian Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Khamis Kagasheki, tried to combat this naming by MPs from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party as among those helping poachers and accusing a former party secretary-general and Defence Minister, Abdulrahman Kinana of involvement in poaching and smuggling. Far from being applauded by the then president, Jakaya Kikwete, he was sacked as minister.

Kagasheki’s disclosures and investigative work by the Environmental Investigation Agency revealed a massive spider-web of corruption linking poachers, criminals, smugglers and Chinese gangs, with the latter having gradually taken over the export end of the operation pushing out the existing networks of indigenous smugglers, especially those in the large Tanzanian Asian and Afro-Shirazi business community in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar (for more details of the networks please see below).

The catastrophic decline in elephant numbers in Tanzania has seen numbers fall from about 109,000 in 2009 to just under 43,000 when the census took place there in 2015. Taking into account an annual birth rate of 5%, this means over 85,000 elephants have died – the majority of these were poached.  Natural mortality will have made up a couple of per cent of deaths a year, legal trophy hunting a little more and shooting of ‘problem’ elephants a relatively small number.

This shows that in the last ten years, scores of thousands of elephants have been poached for their tusks.  The majority have been killed in the Ruaha-Rungwa, Malagarasi-Muyovosi and Selous-Mikumi eco-systems, where two-thirds of the elephants have been killed. A very high rate of killing is also evident in northern Mozambique’s Niassa-Ruvuma area, bordering Tanzania and where Tanzanian gangs operate with little let or hindrance from the Mozambican security forces and Tanzanian border officials.

There were over 34,000 elephants in Ruaha–Rungwa region in 2009; however, this fell to 20,000 in 2013 due to poaching before plummeting further to just 8,000 in 2014. The famed Selous Game Reserve, billed as Africa’s largest game reserve, is actually a shadow of its former self; its once thriving population has fallen from 45,000 to15,00 in the same period and UNESCO had added the reserve to its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list.

(For more details of the networks please see Keith Somerville, ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’, London: Hurst, 2016; and Environmental Investigation Agency, ‘Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants’).

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. He is also author ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent’ (London, Penguin, 2017).

The second part of Professor Somerville’s examination of poaching in Tanzania will look at the historical background.

Posted in Africa, Conservation, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Tanzania, Wildlife crime | Leave a comment

‘White gold’: Kenya’s black tale of greed

The three ‘C’s – commerce, colonialism and criminalisation of indigenous hunting – created the illegal poaching and smuggling networks in Kenya

In the first blog on Kenya’s role in the international ivory trade, I concentrated on the current picture and examples of how corruption enables wildlife crime to flourish there. Now I will show how the trade developed, became criminalized and became a form of political patronage and criminal activity: Professor Keith Somerville, author of  ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’, (Hurst, 2016)

The killing of elephants by humans goes back millennia in Kenya. Communities that lived either by hunting (such as the Waliangulu) or by a mixture of hunting, trading and subsistence farming (like the Wakamba) had long hunted elephants to provide meat and hides. However, few communities in Kenya or the rest of East Africa placed much value on the tusks until demand for ivory from outside the region, especially from India, China, the Middle East and later Europe, created a market for ivory. Foreign merchants brought cloth, manufactured goods and other commodities in exchange for ivory.                                                   

This commerce drove the demand for ivory and the killing of elephants. By the 7th century BC, elephants living in North Africa, along the fringes of the Sahara and the Red Sea littoral had been wiped out. Trading fleets began to move down the Red Sea to present-day South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and then Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique to buy ivory. Those communities in eastern Kenya that hunted elephants for food now found a market for tusks; furthermore, the arrival of Omani Arab traders at ports like Lamu and Mombasa led to an expansion of the trade.

In the closing decade of the 19th century, colonialism changed everything as the British saw ivory as a source of wealth that could tide its colony over until cash-crops like coffee and tea brought in revenue. Indigenous Kenyan communities were banned from hunting elephants and the colonial government encouraged settlers and European hunters to harvest ivory for export which led to the criminalization of local hunting as well as the alienation of local communities from wildlife resources and the marginalization of the Omani Arab and Indian coastal Swahili traders who controlled the trade. However, the bans failed to stop hunting by the communities or trading outside the British-controlled system, leading to networks being established that were ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the British authorities but merely perpetuated long established trading patterns.

With Kenyan independence in 1963 there was a change of guard politically but local people were still banned from hunting; however, the government set out not only to monopolise the ivory trade but also to enrich themselves through the illegal networks, thus in a back-handed way actually institutionalising the illegal trade. A similar counter-factual process of institutionalisation occurred in South Africa after the Apartheid government ended, when a ‘blind eye’ was turned to the vast ivory and rhino horn smuggling networks that had been previously established by the former South African army.

The new government of Jomo Kenyatta used ivory as a form political patronage and wealth creation; Kenyatta issued permits which allowed Kenyans to trade in what was supposedly natural mortality ivory, but the permit system was abused on a massive scale to launder poached ivory with even Kenyatta’s daughter Margaret (Mayor of Nairobi 1970- 76) benefitting from the system by using export permits issued by her father to legalise ivory she had illegally obtained.

A massive network of corruption developed that went right to the heart of the political, civil service and business elite: when Richard Leakey was appointed head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989 he found it riddled with corruption, with poaching, incompetence and corruption having reduced Kenya’s elephants from 40,000 to 5,000 in 20 years.

A few months before Leakey’s appointment, four Kenyan police officers were arrested transporting poached ivory in a government vehicle; at the time of the arrests KWS said it was working hard to combat corrupt officials and policemen who were assisting poachers and smugglers. The problem, though, is that the KWS itself is not above suspicion; in an interview in 2013 before he returned as head the KWS, Leakey told the East African Wildlife Society journal Swara that while graft was widespread in 1989 ‘not much seems to have changed’.

The long and dark history of the trade in Kenya and the extent of corruption within the political system and government administration give little hope that for all the government’s protestations about fighting corruption and ending the ivory trade there is any prospect of that in the near future.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre and is a member of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent.

Posted in Africa, Conservation, Ivory, Kenya, South Africa, wildlife | Leave a comment

Kenya’s criminal ivory tower

Behind the ivory burning and fine words lies corruption and smuggling. (Part 1 of 2).

By Professor Keith Somerville, author of recently published ‘Ivory: power and poaching in Africa’.

On 30th April 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to over 100 tons of ivory – which had cost the lives of over 6,000 elephants. Most of the ivory had been seized from poachers in Kenya or from smugglers using the country to illegally export ivory from elsewhere in Africa.

Staged as a huge media event during an international summit in Nairobi organised by the Giants Club (an organisation linking global businessmen, heads of state and animal welfare NGO’s), the burning of the tusks was supposed to send a message that that the campaign against poaching would be stepped up and that the illegal trade must be stopped.

President Kenyatta used the event to try to improve the image of a country beset by problems of smuggling, poaching, incompetent management of wildlife resources and massive political and civil service corruption that has aided and abetted criminal activity of all kinds, especially the illegal ivory trade

As he lit the ivory pyre Kenyatta said: ‘t his will send an absolutely clear message that the trade in ivory must come to an end and our elephants must be protected.’ He pledged to press for an absolute ban on ivory trading at the upcoming CITES conference and to encourage other countries to burn ivory stocks.

At the CITES conference held in Johannesburg that September, Kenya pushed hard but failed to get the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe listed on CITES Appendix 1, which would have  blocked those countries from applying to CITES for permission to trade legally in ivory.

However, it perhaps would have been better for Kenya to have put its own house in order before trying to tell states that have expanding elephant populations how to manage their ivory.

While Kenya has achieved some success in reducing ivory poaching, it still has a major problem: The Great Elephant Census, released in August 2016, said Kenya’s elephant population was 25,959, down on an estimate given by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 2014 of 28,000 elephants.

With census figures showing a ratio of carcasses to live elephants of 13%, ‘carcass ratios of more than 8 percent are considered to indicate poaching at a high  enough level to cause a declining population’, added the census report.

Even more worrying is the level of corruption, underfunding and incompetence in the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) as well as the ports and customs services that all enable huge quantities of ivory to be smuggled out of Kenya.

Despite promises by the Kenyatta government to crack down on graft, it remains massive: Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, said in late 2015 that Mombasa port was an example of the tie-up between international smuggling syndicates and the Kenyan political elite, with the latter protecting and then benefitting financially from the activities of the former.

A recent example was reported by Kenya’s Star newspaper in November 2016, when the role of senior Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Revenue Authority officers in ivory smuggling was revealed after customs officials in Vietnam seized an ivory consignment in two containers from Mombasa labelled ‘timber’.

A few weeks earlier, Interpol announced that it had issued an international arrest warrant for two smugglers behind the shipping of ivory in a consignment of tea from Mombasa worth Kenyan Sh570 million that was seized in Singapore in April 2015 – again with the collusion of port and customs officials.                                                                                                                                             (Part 2 will look at the history of the ivory trade in Kenya and the origins of the networks of corruption, political graft and crime).

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre and is a member of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent.

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Stalin’s ‘green’ gamble,204,203,200_.jpg

The Soviets are often viewed as insatiable industrialists who saw nature as a force to be tamed and exploited.

Song of the Forest counters this assumption, uncovering significant evidence of Soviet conservation efforts in forestry, particularly under Josef Stalin. In his compelling study, Stephen Brain profiles the leading Soviet-era conservationists, agencies, and administrators, and their efforts to formulate forest policy despite powerful ideological differences.

By the time of the revolution of 1905, modern Russian forestry science had developed an influential romantic strand, especially prevalent in the work of Georgii Morozov, whose theory of “stand types” asked forest managers to consider native species and local conditions when devising plans for regenerating forests. After their rise to power, the Bolsheviks turned their backs on this tradition and adopted German methods, then considered the most advanced in the world, for clear-cutting and replanting of marketable tree types in “artificial forests.”

Later, when Stalin’s Five Year Plan required vast amounts of timber for industrialization, forest radicals proposed “flying management,” an exaggerated version of German forestry where large tracts of virgin forest would be clear-cut. Opponents who still upheld Morozov’s vision favored a conservative regenerating approach, and ultimately triumphed by establishing the world’s largest forest preserve.

Another radical turn came with the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, implemented in 1948. Narrow “belts” of new forest planted on the vast Russian steppe would block drying winds, provide cool temperatures, trap moisture, and increase crop production. Unfortunately, planters were ordered to follow the misguided methods of the notorious Trofim Lysenko, and the resulting yields were abysmal. But despite Lysenko, agency infighting, and an indifferent peasant workforce, Stalin’s forestry bureaus eventually succeeded in winning many environmental concessions from industrial interests. In addition, the visionary teachings of Morozov found new life, ensuring that the forest’s song did not fall upon deaf ears

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Ivory Wars


Joanna Lewis, Assistant Professor, Department of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE) writes:

‘Anyone who believes that China’s recent pledge to ban the ivory trade by the end of 2017 will make a difference to the threat hanging over African elephants will have a rude awakening after reading Keith Somerville’s devastating and majestic history of the supply chain from Africa.

Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa is a gripping, bloody and scholarly narrative dedicated to two groups of brave people: those who risk their lives to save elephants; and those who argue that banning the ivory trade is not the answer.’

Read more here of the review:

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Where poppies blow

Melissa Harrison in The Financial Times reviews ‘Where Poppies Blow’:

What an interesting man John Lewis-Stempel is.

A farmer, nature writer and historian, he has written extensively on the British military and the First World War; he won the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright prize for Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field; and this year he published The Running Hare, a [ BBC] Radio 4 Book of the Week in May [2016]. Now he has combined his two great interests to produce a painstakingly researched and deeply moving account of the relationship between soldiers and Nature on the Western Front from 1914-18.

“One realised how close one was living to nature, closer perhaps than ever before, and the thought that possibly each dawn might be the last accentuated the delight,” wrote Private Norman Edwards of 6/Gloucestershire Regiment from Ploegsteert Wood, Flanders, in May 1915. “The dawns at this time were particularly beautiful. Before any definite light appeared, the larks would soar up and a faint twittering in the wood grew to a buzz of noise as the birds stood-to with us.”

Great numbers of those at the front were bird-lovers, and even those who were not had a much better working knowledge of birds (and of natural history in general) than most of us today. Combine that with boredom and a desperate need for respite and it’s no surprise that so many soldiers spent time bird-watching, egg-collecting, submitting ornithological articles and records and writing poems about birds – particularly the familiar and indomitable skylarks, which seemed so bravely to scorn the aerial hell of artillery.

Read more of Melissa Harrison’s review here:

Posted in Birds, wildlife, World War One | Leave a comment

Jet-setting with the DoD

JP-8 or JP8 (‘Jet Propellant 8’) is a jet fuel specified and used widely by the US military, and is similar to commercial aviation’s Jet A-1 but with the addition of corrosion inhibitor and anti-icing additives. A kerosene-based fuel, JP-8 is projected to remain in use at least until 2025 and was first introduced at NATO bases in 1978.

More than 75% of the fuel used today by the Department of Defense (DoD) of the United States is used for the transporting and conveying of fuel prior to arrival at its final destination.

The DoD is the largest institutional consumer of energy worldwide, accounting for 80-90% of US government energy use; if  the DoD were compared to a country, it would rank 21st in GDP – between Switzerland and Sweden .

The DoD specifics are taken from ‘Ecologies of Power: Counter Mapping the Logistical Landscapes and Military Geographies of the U.S. Department of Defense, compiled and written by landscape architect and urbanist, Pierre Belanger, and doctoral student in Geography, Alexander Arroyo.

Publisher MIT Press writes: ‘through this perpetual cycle of build up and breakdown, the U.S. Department of Defense—the single largest developer, landowner, equipment contractor, and energy consumer in the world—has engineered a planetary assemblage of “operational environments” in which militarized, demilitarized, and non-militarized landscapes are increasingly inextricable’.

Blogger extraordinaire, Regine, comments at ‘We Make Money Nor Art’:

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Russia’s burning secrets


Image result for burning fields russia

In the summer of 2010 during a record heat-wave, central Russia burned. Muscovites and residents of surrounding areas were choked by toxic smoke from the peat-bog fires surrounding the capital. This state of affairs was the logical conclusion of a history of the management of “nature” dating back to early Soviet times, when the peat-bogs were drained by the Soviet state to supply fuel to electrical power stations, and never reflooded after natural gas was discovered in Siberia. It is also the result of more recent reforms, which deregulated and privatized the Russian forestry sector. In 2007, President Putin’s new Russian Forestry Code privatized all forests and related lands, collectively known as “The Forest Fund,” that were previously under governmental jurisdiction; it also cut 75 percent of the forest guards that prevented and combatted fires.

It is in this cultural climate of distrust and nostalgia that the Anastasia movement, also known as the Ringing Cedars movement, emerged. The movement is based on the “Ringing Cedars” books by Vladimir Megre, which, beneath all their esoteric and cosmological details, advocate a nationwide land reform and a society based on self-sufficient, multi-generational homesteads practicing small-scale agriculture.

Virtually no scholarship exists on this phenomenon. To the extent that it is mentioned by Russian academics, it is either in the context of work on mysticism and related practices (Markovin 2002), or briefly referenced in a critique of technocracy (Tarasovskaya et al. 2010:317); Western academics have not engaged with it at all.

Read more of Veronica Davidov’s article ‘Beyond Formal Environmentalism: Eco-Nationalism and ‘the ‘Ring Cedars’ of Russia

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Razor-wire borders halt wildlife

The Balkan region, already threatened by the construction of highways and dams, is now being carved into increasingly constricted and less hospitable chunks by a new threat: border fencing. Those effects are now being felt by the region’s migratory wild animals.

In the past year or so, hundreds of miles of razor wire-topped barriers have been erected across southeastern Europe in an effort to halt the movement of refugees escaping wars and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa.

Even as the migration crisis has eased this year, fences continue to go up. Not only do the fences kill wildlife and lead to genetic isolation, according to a June 2016 study published in the journal PLOS Biology, but these barriers also hamper the efforts of organizations such as the European Wilderness Society (EWS), which is working to protect and expand existing wilderness throughout Europe.

Read more at:

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