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Investigative documentary on bloody ivory from Tanzania

Written by editor

China’s love of ivory is helping to fuel an illicit global trade on bloody ivory, hence, killing of African elephants.

China’s love of ivory is helping to fuel an illicit global trade on bloody ivory, hence, killing of African elephants. The supply chain is complicated and often hard to trace, but it begins in the bush in Africa, where poachers kill an estimated 30,000 elephants each year.

Tanzania is rated on top as Africa’s hotbed of elephant poaching where tusks taken from slaughtered animals are then shipped through a complex web of middlemen before reaching Chinese buyers.

The city of Hong Kong, where an undercover investigation reveals that legitimate operations are used to mask a far more sinister, more lucrative business as Al Jazeera 101 East had uncovered through investigation on the shadowy trade in illegal ivory from Tanzania to China.

Recent documentary released by Al Jazeera had traced poaching of elephants and smuggling of bloody ivory from Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam through Zanzibar port to Hong Kong and Shanghai in China.

The Al Jazeera documentary on Smuggled ivory from Tanzania mainland to Zanzibar, Hong Kong and Shanghai and which has been titled, “White Gold, last night’s episode of 101 East on Al Jazeera,” had investigated the ongoing illegal trade in ivory, exposing a complex transnational business that reaches from the grasslands of Tanzania to the port at Zanzibar to the high streets of Hong Kong and Shanghai.

“Thirty five years ago, 1.2 million elephants roamed this continent (Africa). Today, no more than 500,000 remain, with that number falling by the day,” says 101 East’s Senior Presenter, Steve Chao.

“The statistics are sobering. Between 2011 and 2013, poachers killed 100,000 African elephants. An estimated 30,000 continue to be slaughtered each year… If nothing is done to reverse the tide, Africa’s wild elephants could be gone in just a few decades.”

101 East’s investigation begins at The Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site that has lost more than 60 percent of its elephants in just 5 years.

101 East follows the ivory supply chain, from poor villagers who turn to poaching in desperation, to the local coordinators, to the middlemen, to the traders, to the smugglers and the importers in the East.

At each stage, 101 East is told the money involved rises: a kilogram of ivory earns a poacher just $20 to $25, the local coordinator $35, the traders $115, the smugglers $300, plus $10,000 to buy fillers to hide the ivory in. 101 East is told there is even a set price to bribe a customs official in Zanzibar for $70 per kilogram.

Hong Kong boasts one of the busiest ports in the world, handling nearly 200 000 vessels and 22 m cargo containers in 2014 (last year).

101 East discovers that, Hong Kong is also a key transit hub for smugglers transporting ivory from Africa to China: between 2000 and 2014, customs officials seized some 33 tons of ivory, taken from an estimated 11,000 elephants.

As Cheryl Lo from the World Wildlife Fund says, “If that’s how much was seized because they are checking one percent of the cargo, then, how much was not seized?”

Hong Kong has pledged to tighten border controls and has started incinerating confiscated ivory. The city banned ivory trading in 1989, but with one exception.

Special licenses were granted to businesses that held 665 tons or more of existing stock. The logic then was that these traders should be allowed to exhaust their inventory before the imposition of a total ban. Under the law, domestic sales by licensed traders were considered legal, but ivory exports were prohibited.

Curiously, this legal stockpile of ivory has barely gone down since 2010. Hong Kong traders explain to 101 East’s undercover investigators how certificates for legal, registered ivory can be used to disguise illegal imports. They also advise 101 East how to smuggle ivory out of Hong Kong and offer to introduce them to smugglers who could do it for them.

A simple online search takes 101 East to advertisements from Chinese companies soliciting African ivory, despite China’s promise to phase out the sale of ivory and its current one-year ban on the import of carved products.

In Shanghai, undercover journalists pose as newcomers to the business with access to 20 kilos of African ivory. They easily find willing buyers and are told by a middleman that his company is able to obtain legal documents for illegal ivory.

They then travel to Fuzhou, posing as a representative of a rich businessman interested in buying more than 10 elephant tusks. While they struggle to find an illegal dealer there, they are told that it’s possible to arrange a legal hunt for between $80,000 and $90,000, where they’d be able to take the tusks home as trophies.

“It’s a sobering realization,” says Chao, “For all the laws regulating the ivory trade, there’s a perfectly legal way to shoot an elephant and take its tusks. As long as buyers are willing to pay, it seems someone, somewhere, will find a way to get them their white gold. And with poaching still a problem, these animals face greater danger than ever before.”