By Maraya Cornell
Recently, I interviewed the Tanzanian Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu, for National Geographic News, inviting him to respond to charges that Tanzania isn’t doing enough to protect its elephants—charges that have surfaced with renewed urgency in the wake of catastrophic results from last year’s nation-wide elephant census.
Tanzania, which was estimated to have more than 136,700 elephants in 2006, had only about 43,000 at the end of last year. (Read more about why Tanzania’s elephants are disappearing.)
Nyalandu said that ivory poaching incidents were on the decline. But he also stressed that the crisis isn’t over, and more needs to be done for the elephant population to recover.
While I had Nyalandu on the phone, I asked him about some of the problems Tanzania has run into in its efforts to combat the elephant slaughter.
We talked about Tanzania’s notorious 2013 anti-poaching operation, legislation that would restrict research and freedom of information, an American NGO that was kicked out of the country earlier this year, and why Tanzania decided not to burn its ivory stockpile.
Tanzania used to be one of Africa’s elephant strongholds. Now it’s being called Africa’s “killing fields,” with more ivory flowing out of Tanzania than any other country. How did things get so bad?
We entered a very specific period of unprecedented poaching, unprecedented demand for ivory materials, but also much more coordinated illegal activities, with markets being in China and other Asian countries.
Those who were hired to go and slaughter these wild species, they were increasingly well-coordinated, very well-funded, using sophisticated equipment including military-grade weapons.
The poaching crisis really came to a climax in 2013 when the government ordered the Operation Tokomeza to get rid of the poaching cartels and poaching networks within the country.
Tell us about Operation Tokomeza.
It was a national anti-poaching crackdown, with game rangers, police, the military. But it was led by the military.
It didn’t go very well. There were reported incidents of human rights abuses. People being beaten. The whole thing was turning ugly.
People were killed, right? And women were raped. Terrible things happened.
Brutalized, some of them raped, killed. Yeah.
It was not something that the government was expecting. Once those reports came flowing in, the wise decision was to immediately stop it.
On the other hand, it was a very successful operation in getting the bad guys. Within a short period of time, we arrested so many people. We caught so many weapons, so much ivory. We saw results.
So the decision was to continue with what we call the intelligence-led operation.
We receive intelligence, we use a special task force to do specific assignments, and we’ve been very successful.
How do you ensure that the human rights abuses aren’t repeated in this intelligence-led operation?
It is not military. It is led by my ministry. Our people, all of them were trained.
I have made statements that it is not allowed to torture anybody, to kill anybody, to shoot anybody, to beat anybody. They are only supposed to apprehend them and to bring them to justice.
That process of somebody being successfully prosecuted—their families are seeing that. Their neighbors are seeing that. [Their] children might be ridiculed. It shames them. Nobody wants their family to be shamed.
In what areas would you like to see more international involvement?
We understand the responsibility to protect the elephants lies with us. But also we acknowledge that we have weaknesses in certain areas, including manpower and resources.
When you have a war, boots on the ground are very important, but you also have to make sure they have equipment and vehicles.
One of the biggest challenges we have is quality intelligence. We depend on human intelligence, which is sometimes compromised, especially in areas where poachers are members of that particular community.
So we need an increased use of other ways of intelligence gathering, including the use of drones, especially at night, to be able to survey vast areas and increase the probability of catching somebody.
This battle is much bigger than us, and we need everybody on board.
Sometimes it seems like international attempts to support conservation in Tanzania backfire. I’m thinking of Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (VETPAW), the American NGO that and was booted out of Tanzania earlier this year.
Generally, we welcome the international cooperation.
VETPAW approached us. And we said: Training? Yes, we need training. I need anybody with skills to come and help make my rangers better skilled and better informed.
But then, the fact that they would publish on their website that they are in Tanzania to kill poachers, to shoot them in the head—it is self-defeating.
We do not bring foreign forces, or foreign fighters, so to speak. This is under the law.
But, let me take you through who these poachers are, okay? The people who really benefit from these illicit networks are seated somewhere in big cities—in China, maybe in Dar es Salaam, maybe some in New York. These are the people who are channeling the finances, money laundering, and all the transportation networks. These are the people who really benefit.
So who does the killing? These are the poor people, ordinary people from the communities that are told: We’re gonna to give you this much money if you bring the ivory product. They are ordinary folks, civilians, members of communities.
Our approach is not to kill anybody. Our approach is to arrest and to prosecute those that do harm.
In February 2014, you told the BBC that Tanzania would not destroy its stockpile. Why?
We [have] the world’s largest stockpile—130,000 tons to date. We have two types of ivory. One is legal ivory—elephants get old, they die, we keep the ivory.
And we have, from the business of poaching, confiscated illegal ivory.
The problem was, if you sell, it aids the market. It brings more appetite for those who want to buy ivory.
So my president made a decision in February that Tanzania would, for now, put its ivory stockpile beyond economic use.
But why not destroy it?
We have some of the biggest possible ivory. [The tusks] are just amazing. They’re big. Those [big elephants] are no longer there. It’s like going to Germany and being able to see the dinosaur [bones]. Why would you burn a dinosaur?
It continues to be a debate. We’re open about it. But for now, we’re going to keep it safe, keep it away from possibility of theft or fire, and that’s why my government entered an agreement with the UK government through an agency called Stop Ivory of UK to make sure that every single ivory is DNA-ed, and we know where it came from.
I would like to open this [ivory room] at some point for global research.
How do you respond to concerns that legislation recently passed by Parliament, the Statistics and Cybercrimes Acts, could be used to stifle independent research and prosecute people who are trying to expose corruption in the public interest?
My responsibility as a minister only [extends] into natural resources and tourism. But we believe in protecting not only freedom of speech but in protecting the right to get information.
My belief is that more needs to be done in terms of making sure that we can continue to have quality information available. At the end of the day, our conservation effort will be impaired if the right flow of information is not there.
In September of 2013, in a speech at an anti-poaching rally in Dar es Salaam—you were Deputy Minister then—you said, “Corruption and immorality have reached an extreme stage and should not be tolerated. If legal action is not taken against the corrupt police officers at the airport, employees at national parks, politicians and businessmen doing the illegal ivory trade shielded by a few leaders, then we will lose all our elephants in few years to come.” Do you still feel that way?
I do. I do. I still feel the same.
Maraya Cornell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.