TANZANIA (eTN) – A senior American couple staged a protest outside the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington, looking to express their feelings and grievances they endured after arrest and charges over poaching of a giraffe during their six-day safari in Tanzania.
The couple from Foster City in California, Jon and Linda Grant, were joined by a group of other well-wishers, holding placards to protest the ordeal, looking to meet the Tanzanian ambassador to the US, but all in vain.
Jon, age 72, and Linda, age 65, were arrested in Tanzania early this year and charged with a poaching crime, alleged by Tanzanian security officials who said that the senior citizens had entered a Tanzanian wildlife park and killed a giraffe which they processed as a trophy and were found possessing.
But the couple, humble and senior citizens from the US, had purchased in South Africa, an etched 18-inch giraffe bone with a herd of elephants carved on it, which Jon said he was interested in for the bone, because he hadn’t seen anything like it and thought it might look good on his desk at home.
The couple bought the engraved 18-inch bone at a souvenir shop within a wildlife refuge, without knowing that the souvenir would hand them into an AK-47 wielding policeman with zero knowledge of a legally-acquired trophy and respect of human rights, especially toward the old couple he was brandishing the gun at.
Jon and Linda were facing a 20-year sentence in Tanzania’s notorious prisons and a US$150,000 fine for a poaching crime they had never committed, other than failure by Tanzanian tourism and immigration departments to issue travel notices to foreign tourists to inform them all about items to declare on arrival at the Tanzanian entry points.
The couple was on safari in Africa and ended up spending 3 days in a notorious Tanzanian remand prison on wrongful charges of poaching and killing an 18-foot giraffe, the tallest mammal in the world, and which is Tanzania’s most respected animal since the British colonial era.
Jon, a retired dentist, has been in 132 countries, and Linda has visited 100 countries during the last 15 years for humanitarian missions with the Rotary Club to distribute 400,000 wheelchairs to the disabled in developing countries, among them Africa.
Speaking of their Tanzania ordeal, Jon said the South African souvenir when he asked the seller if it was legal item to purchase the item and whether the seller was sure that Jon could take it through customs, the answer was right away that it was a legalized item.
But in South Africa, wildlife laws were probably more transparent than Tanzania where most of legislations and laws on wild creatures are not clearly known to the citizens, giving rise to corrupt and lax government officials benefitting on the backs of innocent people.
John Grant said he even kept part of the souvenir unwrapped so he could easily show customs agents to ensure that it wasn’t an ivory from elephant tusk, an obviously illegal contraband.
“Even showing receipts proving the souvenir was purchased legally in South Africa wasn’t enough to get them out,” he said.
While making their way through one airport customs proved flawless, their final stop in Tanzania was the beginning of a long nightmare, the couple said.
“Right from the beginning, everyone said, “We’ve never heard of anything like this. You’re being charged with poaching for having a souvenir in your suitcase,” Jon Grant said, emphasizing the couple in no way endorses illegal killings or poaching.
The walls of John and Linda Grant’s Foster City home are covered with photos of lion cubs, penguins, and other animals they’ve enjoyed seeing in their travels. They are world travelers, active in various international causes.
They say they don’t hunt, much less poach, but they were charged with poaching at the end of this expensive six-day safari in Tanzania early this year.
Jon also recalled being in custody with uniformed juveniles with AK-47s hung around their necks keeping watch over the senior Americans who were denied food and initially, Jon Grant’s medication.
Their tour company tried to intervene, and eventually got the head of a Tanzanian tour guide association to get involved, as thousands of dollars were shuffled to Tanzanian authorities to move up court dates and, after three days being locked up, the couple was able to bail out.
But then it was another nearly three weeks of making court appearances and staying with the wealthy head of the tour guide association, who thankfully had access to money and knew the scheme. But despite bribing multiple officials, one didn’t bite, Jon Grant said.
They were seriously facing 20 years in a Tanzanian prison as new state officials sought to make an “example” of them and put a firm foot down on poaching. But after reaching out to their friend and Foster City Deputy Mayor Charlie Bronitsky, the ball got rolling.
Jon Grant said it’s still hard to believe that what he was carrying what happened to be illegal in Tanzania – their final destination after a two-week cruise and a week-long safari in South Africa.
Despite other countries and customs agents allowing them to travel with it, in Tanzania, the couple was accused of killing a giraffe, cutting off its leg, then intricately engraving it within a matter of days. Quickly, their passports and belongings were taken away before being sent to jail and eventually prison.
“I don’t even think I have the appropriate words to describe the fear,” Linda Grant recalled, later noting even the US embassy officials and Tanzanian tour guides couldn’t believe the couple was being charged for poaching. “Everyone realized that this is the most trumped up charge on Earth, but we got caught up in this corrupt system.”
Between bribes, legal fees, government fines, and new airfare, the couple said it cost them more than $70,000 to escape from the African continent.
Although the couple said they don’t imagine they’ll be traveling anywhere requiring a passport any time soon, a disappointment for the duo that has spent much of their relationship visiting foreign nations, their spirits remain bright.
They have been home for nearly two months now. Jon Grant recovered after having a four-day hospital stay prompted by the stressful trip, and they’ve had to take a line of credit out on their home to pay back the head of the tour association $62,000, half of which covered the court fine and the remainder went to bribes and legal fees in Tanzania, they said.
Linda urged people to visit the US State Department websites of countries they are planning to travel to and make sure they know the rules, and Jon said the bone that he didn’t even get to keep, sure wasn’t worth the harrowing ordeal.
“It’s ruined our perception of fun travel. I think the message is, you get into these countries where they can just do anything they want,” Jon said, adding that they were initially denied an attorney and phone call to the US embassy in Dar es Salaam.
“I think it’s important to get the word out to people that are traveling, especially in Tanzania; there’s no rules there, you have no rights there,” Jon said.
These Foster City residents stood outside the Tanzanian Embassy in Washington, warning others of their experience in the country and pleading with the Tanzanian ambassador to meet with them.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) and a handful of staffers joined the Grants, waving signs, and speaking to passersby.
But when the senior American tourists were accused of poaching in Tanzania, their own country – the United States of America, which represents the largest single tourism market for this African country (Tanzania), and attracts a record high of 62,000 of high-spending American visitors per year – was nowhere to be found in providing support for this gentle senior couple.
Ironically, the United States government, through its global development agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is supporting Tanzania with a multi-million-dollar project to support wildlife conservation.