Chinese Navy Goes to Tanzania, Murders Elephants
Beijing’s delegations pay top dollar for blood ivory
In December 2013, two Chinese navy vessels—the frigate Hengshui and the amphibious ship Jinggangshan—called at Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania for what officials described as a four-day “cultural exchange.”
Instead, officers from the ships funded the slaughter of at least 40 endangered savannah elephants, likely in Tanzania’s poorly-protected national parks.
Many Chinese prize elephant-ivory keepsakes as status symbols.
The crime came to authorities’ attention when one of the ivory suppliers, feeling the Chinese had underpaid him, turned snitch. On Dec. 30, police arrested Yu Bo—a Chinese national living in Tanzania—trying to sneak 81 tusks into Dar Es Salaam’s port, allegedly on behalf of the naval officers.
The December incident is not an isolated one. Chinese demand for status items fuels the ongoing extermination of Africa’s elephants and other wildlife. And Chinese government delegations are involved in the bloody, illegal trade.
In 2008, the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — otherwise known as CITES — gave China and five other countries permission for a one-time sale of 100 tons of banned elephant ivory.
That sale stimulated a long-dormant market for ivory that, back in the 1970s and ’80s, had fueled a poaching epidemic that killed nearly a million of Africa’s then roughly 1.3 million elephants.
Today elephant populations across Africa and Asia are again collapsing, owing mostly to illegal poaching to meet Asian demand for ivory. Between 2010 and 2012, poachers killed no fewer than 100,000 elephants, driving the total pachyderm population in Africa to just 400,000 … and falling fast.
China is the main recipient of smuggled ivory. In theory, Beijing licenses and regulates the Chinese ivory market and allows only pre-ban or CITES-approved ivory.
But in reality, most ivory vendors in China operate illegally and traffic in fresh ivory that poachers remove from elephants’ faces with chainsaws, after shooting or poisoning the gentle, intelligent creatures.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare surveyed Chinese ivory shops in 2011. “Of the 158 ivory carving and retail outlets visited in the month-long survey, only 57 were licensed: 101 were unlicensed and operating illegally.”
And the Chinese navy is helping to transport this blood ivory to China.
Hengshui and Jinggangshan’s December visit “prompted a surge in business for Dar Es Salaam-based ivory traders,” according to the U.K. Environmental Investigation Agency. “One dealer based in the Mwenge handicrafts market boasted of making … $50,000 from sales to personnel from the vessels.”
Yu Bo was hoping to get in on the action. “On the evening in question, two vehicles arrived at the port entrance, both carrying concealed ivory. Bribes totaling [$20,000] were paid to gain access without inspection.”
But police stopped Yu at a second checkpoint after a tip-off from the aggrieved supplier. The subsequent investigation revealed that Yu had arrived in Tanzania a month prior in order to arrange the ivory sale.
While corrupt Tanzanian authorities are often party to wildlife trafficking, in Yu’s case justice was swift and severe. In March, a court fined him $5.6 million—the maximum Tanzanian law allows. He could not pay, so the judge switched the sentence to 20 years in prison.
But Yu’s imprisonment is a rare act of accountability. More often, African elephant-killers and their Chinese patrons get away with their crimes. In March 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Tanzania at the head of a large delegation, which proceeded to buy up so much ivory that local prices doubled.
The tusks, torn from the animals’ faces, were “later sent to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane,” according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Perversely, in November the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania Lu Youqing told a reporter that “protection of the diversity of the wildlife of the country … is a noble course that should be supported by different nations.”