In Kiswahili tokomeza means terminate. When the Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete launched Operation Tokomeza, with its shoot-to-kill orders to deal with elephant poachers, he wasn’t mincing his words.
In the later part of the twentieth century the same policy had been the key initiative in temporarily stopping the decimation of East Africa’s herds after Kenya was forced to adopt the same extreme measure. Introducing it to Tanzania was one no country could take lightly.
But a crisis point had been reached. As the President warned the country’s MPs, the population of elephants had been decimated, now standing at just the 15 per cent of the 350,000 there were some 20 years ago. Even four years ago there were believed to be twice as many elephants as there are today.
The country’s porous borders, absence of customs at most exit points, lack of enough scanners at the country’s biggest port and poor ocean patrols have led to the country becoming a poaching hub.
“It is very hard for us to know who is involved in the highest level of poaching before ivory is taken to the market because these are people with ivory processing factories and they collect ivory from all over the world,” said Tanzania’s Natural Resources and Tourism Ministry’s Principal Game Officer, Karamaga Canisius. “We don’t have specific names due to lack of a mechanism to trace containers.
“For example, a container is loaded in Tanzania with ivory, shipped to South Africa where more ivory is loaded, shipped back to Tanzania on transit and then heads to Dubai and so forth. Most seizures from Africa seem to have come from Tanzania because of how the network operates. But it is clear that most of the consignments are destined for Asia, especially China and Vietnam.”
Civil society activists and opposition politicians have complained of slow prosecution of poachers who have been taken to court even when all the evidence has been provided. Rumours abound about powerful businesspeople with high political connections to be the masterminds of ivory trade.
Unsurprisingly this is something Karamaga would not comment on. “We have for years hosted refugees from DRC, Rwanda, Somalia and other neighbouring countries who smuggle in weapons which are in return used for poaching,” he stressed. “But the biggest challenge for us in intensifying the anti-poaching campaign is having enough game wardens and weapons to fight poachers.”
Unlike South Africa and Botswana which have decided to fence their conservation areas to limit humans from encroaching freely into the reserves, most of the game reserves such as Ngorongoro Conversation Area and Selous Game Reserve, have a combined size of 100,000 square metres. Karamaga says the government doesn’t have resources to fence areas with such sizes.
That is why the country decided to instead resort to the power of the gun. But international multi-billion dollar criminal industries are never black and white, and when the world’s most magnificent and tragically valuable animals are surrounded by the world’s poorest people, some get caught up in the crossfire.
Magreth Kajoro, a 73 year old grandmother was returning home to her mud-walled house in Usinge village, in the north west of the country, after a day planting sweet potatoes, just in time to see her son, Kipara Issa, being taken away by police, in front of his wife and their six children. Police were following reports that ivory and a gun were hidden in the house. None were found, but six hours later Kipara’s body was in the hospital morgue.
Police reports issued later show that the officers acquired vital information from the exercise about eight other suspected poachers. The degree to with Kipara may or may not have been involved in poaching remains very much unclear, but one thing is. As a possible bit part player in a vast criminal industry, Kipara was not a wealthy man.
“Because the judicial process too often fails at present in successful convictions for wildlife crimes, law enforcement agents are worryingly resorting to drastic measures,” said Dr Max Graham of Space for Giants.
“That is why we are investing in improving the capacity and professionalism of the criminal trial process. This will lead to higher convictions and hopefully the absence of tragic stories such as this.”
Programmes paid for by Space for Giants include the implementation of training programmes for the security services in East Africa which improve their ability to ensure evidence is collected cleanly and fair process is used in tackling poaching crimes.
With the help of money donated by Independent readers, these programmes are scheduled to be rolled out into Tanzania next year. A review of existing laws will be conducted by a team of international lawyers supported by the criminal justice advisor to the British High Commission in Nairobi. Then security services will start to be taught how to collect evidence, properly prepare a charge sheet and follow a case through the court process.
Government regulations call for contractors rehabilitating roads along game reserves or protected areas to provide casual jobs to villagers who live close to the areas as part of efforts to improve relationships with them. However, Karamaga says that most of such people and tour guides use the opportunity to know places which have high animal concentration and eventually become agents for the poachers.
“The villagers could themselves be directly involved in poaching or provide information for money to the actual poachers, who get money, guns and bullets from middlemen. The worrying trend is that poachers now have technology and subsistence poaching has been commercialized. Furthermore, we have seen an increase in bush meat trade whose scale is as high as elephant poaching, and trade in live animals. Commercial poaching is now international. The China connection in particular, and the Middle East too, has made the business more profitable,” said Karamaga.
The middlemen work closely with a bigger network which consists of powerful people who deal in illicit drugs, human trafficking and money laundering, but operate the businesses remotely.
The government has a fully-fledged anti-poaching squad but other measures are being considered, such as a Wildlife Authority which would be responsible for protecting wildlife, among other things, but the uniqueness about the Authority is that it would be an independent entity with full mandate and budget.
Operation Tokomeza was suspended last month, while investigations into alleged killings associated with it are investigated. Meanwhile Kipara’s mother Kajoro and his widow, have six grandchildren to raise by themselves – just one of the victims of Africa’s ivory war.
The Independent’s charity partner, Space for Giants, and the Kenya Wildlife Service are not implicated in the events described in this article.
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