NAIROBI—The trophy hunters’ transgressions were all caught on tape — capturing baby zebras, running over an impala with a truck, watching wildebeests writhe and bleed before killing them, letting children participate in the hunt.
It was an appalling display that led the Tanzanian government in 2014 to suspend Green Mile Safari, a hunting company that catered to wealthy tourists from the United Arab Emirates. But last month, to the shock of conservationists and U.S. officials, that company was quietly welcomed back to Tanzania just in time for hunting season.
The story of Green Mile, which is partially owned by one of the wealthiest men in Abu Dhabi, is a window into the shadowy world of big game hunting in a country where biodiversity has crashed in recent decades. In Tanzania, hunters can pay thousands of dollars to kill nearly any animal, even elephants, whose population has fallen from 110,000 in 2009 to just over 43,000 at the end of 2014. A lion can be killed for $8,000, a leopard for $6,000.
Hunters argue that the money raised from those hunts supports conservation and that they can be done sustainably. But the images from Green Mile’s video — part of a macabre advertisement for the company — show just how poorly regulated hunting in Tanzania can be, with wildlife illegally captured, abused, tortured. In one scene, a hunter tackles a baby zebra and puts his arm around its throat, one of many violations of Tanzania’s wildlife laws.
"I want to take a picture with him," the man says in Arabic. "Take a picture of me with him."
Yet even with those images public and a flurry of protestations from the U.S. ambassador, the Humane Society of the United States and Tanzanian lawmakers, Green Mile has been given another hunting permit. One reason, some argue, is that 48 percent of the company is owned by the wealthy and well-connected Sheikh Abdulla Bin Mohammed Bin Butti al-Hamed, a member of the U.A.E.’s ruling family who has held several top positions in its government.
Al-Hamed has flown friends and family to the safari property. He’s even featured in the video — holding a live a wart hog by the head.
“He loves hunting, so he wants the company to exist,” said Yahya Kishashu, a strategic advisor to Green Mile, in an interview.
Kishashu defended al-Hamed and the company, saying that the video “was recorded by clients because they had no clue they were doing anything wrong.”
Both Kishashu and Tanzanian government officials said the hunting guide in the video— paid by Green Mile and responsible for following wildlife laws – should be punished, not the company as a whole. That guide “was not doing his job,” Kishashu said.
Maj. Gen. Gaudence Milanzi, the principal secretary of Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, which regulates the country’s hunting permits, also blamed official “game scouts” who were responsible for keeping the clients in line.
“We should be punishing these individuals, not the company,” he said — even though one of the company's owners was participating in the illegal hunt.
In a letter to Tanzania’s attorney general and obtained by The Washington Post, U.S. Ambassador Mark Childress wrote that he was “shocked” that Green Mile had been given a license “after committing a series of very serious violations of the Wildlife Conservation Act.”
Green Mile had been given a concession of land originally allocated for 30 years to a safari company owned by the Houston-based Friedkin Cos. The land was taken from Friedkin just a year after that 30-year pledge was made.
Childress wrote in his letter that the Tanzanian government’s decision “would cause grave damage to our mutual interest in deepening U.S. investment in Tanzania.”
Milanzi said the natural resources and tourism minister did not have the right to suspend a hunting company. But the country’s Wildlife Conservation Act says that “the minister shall cancel the allocation of the hunting block if he is sure there is sufficient evidence that the person has committed any offense.”
Milanzi acknowledged that offense had been committed.
“You see the video, and it’s clear that what they did was wrong,” he said.
In 2014, the Tanzanian government had called Green Mile's hunting practices a “gross violation” of the country’s laws. Removing the company was considered a major victory for conservationists in the region,
So why bring Green Mile back — especially if it endangers the country’s relationship with the United States, which is scheduled to give Tanzania $575 million in 2017?
“I don’t doubt there’s a substantial amount of money for the ministers involved,” said David Hayes, the former deputy secretary of the interior from 2009 to 2013 and now the chair of the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance.
"I am worried there are all signs of corruption,” said Zitto Kabwe, head of the Alliance for Change and Transparency, an opposition party.
As wealth mounted in the UAE, some of the country’s businessmen began purchasing hunting concessions in East Africa that would cater to UAE tourists. Tanzania was one of their first stops. In 1992, the Ortelo Business Co. began flying clients to the Loliondo area near Serengeti National Park, where people hunted freely on over 50,000 acres. They returned with planes full of the animals they killed.
It’s not just UAE companies and hunters who are known for violating wildlife laws. Last year, an American dentist working with a Zimbabwean guide caused an uproar when he shot and killed a lion known as Cecil. Two men working with the guide were accused of using bait to lure the lion out of a national park. That incident stoked outrage at the existence of big game hunting in Africa, and revenue from sanctioned hunting is down across much of the continent.
Now, Green Mile's reinstatement has raised further questions about how big game hunting is managed in parts of Africa.
“It is appalling that the Tanzanian government has reinstated the hunting license and concession of a trophy-hunting company known for committing egregious acts of animal cruelty," said Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States.
Tanzania has attempted to improve conservation efforts and to promote tourism in the Serengeti region for non-hunters, who come to see the massive migration of animals across East Africa. It has worked to combat wildlife poachers.
Now, some Tanzanians worry what Green Mile’s return means for that conservation agenda.
“How can the government stand in the world and show that it fights for conservation while the same government issue permits to hunt to a company like Green Mile?” Kabwe asked.