BEIJING — When President Xi Jinping of China and his entourage of government officials and business leaders arrived in Tanzania in March 2013, it was to officially promote economic ties between the two countries.
But according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental organization based in London, members of the Chinese delegation used Mr. Xi’s visit as an opportunity to procure so much illegal ivory that local prices doubled to about $318 a pound. Two weeks before Mr. Xi arrived, Chinese buyers purchased thousands of pounds of poached tusks, which were “later sent to China in diplomatic bags on the presidential plane,” said the report, which was released on Wednesday.
The Chinese government has been trying to prove itself a responsible state actor that is serious about abolishing corruption and abiding by international law. But the report, “Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants,” details Chinese diplomats and military personnel colluding with Tanzanian officials and Chinese crime syndicates to send illegal ivory to China, decimating Tanzania’s elephant population in the process.
“Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory in the world and China the largest importer of smuggled tusks,” the organization said in a statement.
A Chinese official denied the accusations and denounced the organization that issued the report.
In the past four years, Tanzania has lost more elephants than any other country, an estimated 10,000 in 2013 alone, according to the organization. The elephant population in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a vast wilderness larger than Switzerland, plummeted 67 percent between 2009 and 2013, to 13,000.
International conservation groups have long accused Beijing of turning a blind eye to China’s major role in the illegal ivory trade, which has surged since officials with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, permitted China to buy 68 tons of African ivory in 2008.
The Chinese government had lobbied hard to allow a legal domestic trade in ivory, arguing that it would undercut poachers and thus protect elephants herds. Instead, illegal ivory has flooded Chinese markets, where it is carved into jewelry, trinkets and religious sculptures for wealthy collectors. The price of ivory in China has tripled in the last four years, according to a report published in June by Save the Elephants.
The slaughter of African elephants has increased along with China’s influence on the continent, and a report by the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society said relations between the two countries “fuel elephant killings.”
“At the root of Tanzania’s elephant disaster lies a toxic blend of governance failures, corruption and criminality,” the Environmental Investigation Agency report said.
Game rangers share information on patrol patterns and the location of herds, it said. Police officers rent out weapons and transport tusks. Officers with the Tanzania Revenue Authority permit shipping containers full of ivory to exit the country’s ports. This year, the report said, 21 game rangers were fired for cooperating with poachers after an internal investigation by Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism.
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The organization has traced bribery and collusion in ivory smuggling to politicians from Tanzania’s governing party, led by President Jakaya Kikwete. When he took office in 2005, there were about 142,000 elephants in Tanzania. By the time Mr. Kikwete is to step down next year, the population is expected to have declined to just 55,000. Tanzania currently bans all domestic and international trade in ivory.
The Tanzanian government under Mr. Kikwete has tried three times to gain permission from Cites to sell its ivory stockpile. It has also sought to ease restrictions on Tanzania’s elephants in order to take advantage of a growing demand for ivory in Asia, particularly in China.
“This business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network,” said Khamis Kagasheki, a former Tanzanian Natural Resources and Tourism minister.
Investigators with the organization have documented, often with hidden cameras, Chinese and Tanzanian smugglers acknowledging that they had bought and sold illegal ivory, which several Chinese traffickers said accounted for 90 percent of the Chinese ivory market.
“Even if they kill all the African elephants, it won’t be enough to make these,” said one Chinese smuggler on camera, referring to the ivory chopsticks in his hand.
Chinese smugglers have set up a widespread network in Tanzania that includes staff members of the Chinese Embassy in the country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, the organization said.
During a November 2013 raid on a house in a suburb of Dar es Salaam, the police found 706 tusks, large amounts of cash, scales, a minibus with a secret compartment for hiding ivory, and license plates. The three Chinese men arrested were packing the tusks in sacks under snail shells and garlic. According to the report, the suspects used a business exporting seafood to conceal their ivory smuggling.
A month later, the official connection became apparent when a Chinese naval fleet docked at the port of Dar es Salaam for four days of “cultural exchanges.” The official visit benefited local ivory traders, the report said, with one dealer boasting of earning $50,000 from sales to Chinese naval personnel. During the visit, a Chinese citizen named Yu Bo was arrested trying to enter the port with 81 tusks — ivory from about 40 elephants. Convicted of ivory smuggling and fined $5.6 million, Mr. Yu was sentenced to 20 years in prison; he is the only person to have been convicted in eight major cases since 2009.
Meng Xianlin, the executive director general of China’s endangered species trade authority, denied that Chinese officials were involved in the illegal ivory trade. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Meng called the Environmental Investigation Agency report “highly irresponsible,” for “spreading rumors and damaging China’s image without any evidence.”
Describing the E.I.A. as a “dodgy organization,” Mr. Meng also said he had never heard of Mr. Yu.
“If such a Chinese national was caught, I would have seen police reports,” he said. “There was no such report from Tanzania or anywhere.”
Main Photo: (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)