African elephants interact in Tarangire National Park on the outskirts of Arusha, northern Tanzania. (Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP)

Tanzania’s elephants are disappearing at an astonishing rate, and the culprit appears to be obvious.

For years, environmental organizations have documented the country’s growing role in organized, illegal elephant poaching, which largely feeds China’s voracious appetite for ivory.

Tanzania is now the largest source of seized ivory on the continent of Africa. And because of that, its elephants are in peril.

This week, the Tanzanian government announced that the country’s elephant population had collapsed from just under 110,000 in 2009 to 43,330 today. Taking into account normal population renewal, that is a decline of more than 60 percent in five years — a dramatic and and disheartening statistic.

“How do you end up with tens of thousands of elephant carcasses in the field and no one says anything?” said Tom Milliken, elephant and rhino program coordinator for TRAFFIC, an international organization that monitors the trade of wild animals and plants.

“I think everyone believes this is all happening because of poaching,” he said.

But someone did say something.

For years, TRAFFIC has been trying to call attention to the troubling shift in illegal smuggling activity to Tanzanian ports since 2009. The group has also found tons of ivory linked to Tanzanian elephants at other African and Asian ports.

[China pledges to end ivory trading — but says the U.S. should, too]

That volume of organized poaching activity couldn’t happen entirely under the radar.

“These large movements of ivory are the hallmark of organized crime,” Milliken told The Washington Post.


Confiscated ivory from Tanzania is displayed at a chemical waste treatment center in Hong Kong in 2014. (Kin Cheung/AP)

TRAFFIC began raising concerns in reports beginning in 2010. Tanzania, which once had Africa’s second-largest elephant population, had become a magnet for poachers.

“You don’t get losses on this scale unless corruption and government complicity of some dimension is at play,” Milliken said.

In a speech announcing the dire numbers, Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu, called the survey a “mixed bag.”

Were they killed or did they move out of the observed area?” Nyalandu asked. “Usually when such a large animal reduction is observed, there are a comparable number of carcasses also observed. That was not the case here.” 

With a hint of optimism, Nyalandu noted that elephant populations in some parts of the country were growing. And he pledged that Tanzania is committed to working to “address the scourge of poaching,” in part by hiring hundreds of new rangers.

[How China’s ivory addiction explains the new world economy]

But according to Milliken, the growth of elephant populations is happening largely in tourist-heavy regions, where the constant flow of foreign visitors has acted as something of a fence of protection for the animals.

With this large quantity of ivory being removed from Tanzania annually, it suggests that the animals are not simply migrating to other parts of the continent. The loss of tens of thousands of elephants in the southern parts of Tanzania is most likely attributable to the flagrant and widespread slaughtering of these animals, according to Milliken.

Additionally, Indian Ocean ports in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous portion of Tanzania, have emerged as a major point of departure for exported ivory. Zanzibar’s semi-autonomous status means that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which aims to protect endangered plants and animals, isn’t implemented there.

That has produced a massive loophole that is so large “you can drive a herd of elephants through it,” Milliken said.

[Chelsea Clinton highlights plight of elephants on visit to reserve in Kenya]

The problem was has been unavoidable for years, but news of the elephants’ dwindling population hasn’t produced the sense of alarm one might have expected from environmentalists.

In a statement, the Wildlife Conservation Society praised the Tanzanian government for its work to combat poaching. The group noted that it has been working to shore up conservation efforts in the country.

“These results bring into focus the extent of elephant poaching for the ivory trade, and how this continues to threaten the existence of elephants in Tanzania,” the statement read. “The Tanzanian government has taken some positive steps and are greatly commended for revealing these troubling figures so openly.”


An African elephant grazes in Tarangire National Park on the outskirts of Arusha, northern Tanzania. The park is known for its baobab trees and hosts more than 500 animal species. (Mosa’ab Elshamy/AP)

Milliken was less impressed.

“I thought what was missing from the minister’s statement Monday was the absence of a heartfelt call for a full investigation as to how that could have happened with nobody really knowing about it,” he noted.

[The long battle to remove elephants from the Ringling Bros. circus]

NGOs that work on wildlife conservation and research need to maintain a good relationship with the Tanzanian government in order to continue functioning; that might be difficult to do if government complicity is clearly identified as part of the problem.

In the late 1980s, Tanzania’s elephant population suffered a similar loss. When the government cracked down on ivory seizures for a period of nearly 15 years, the population made a full recovery. But that “perfect record” of seizures of large-scale ivory has slipped since the early 2000s.

Now, Milliken believes that government accountability might be the only thing that can save Tanzania’s elephants now.

“Yes, they do need more resources, and they do need to be better equipped and things like that — but more fundamentally, there’s just a whole lot more going on that they could do, and it hasn’t been done,” Milliken said. “It hasn’t been done because of systemic issues like complicity and corruption and people who benefit from the ivory trade.”

He added: “If there’s no mechanism to ferret that out and deal with it in real time, then it begins to spread like a cancer.”

MORE READING: [Overwhelmed U.S. port inspectors unable to keep up with illegal wildlife trade]

[Horribly bleak study sees ’empty landscape’ as large herbivores vanish at startling rate]

[Chinese officials accused of smuggling ivory during state visit to Tanzania]

[China’s first ‘ivory crush’ signals it may join global push to protect African elephants]