BEIJING — When Chinese President Xi Jinping took a large government and business delegation to Tanzania on his inaugural trip abroad in March 2013, he took pains to emphasize that his country’s growing ties with Africa would benefit the people of the continent.
But even as he spoke in glowing terms about unity and cooperation, his entourage was busy buying up thousands of kilograms of illegal ivory, using the cover afforded by their official status to smuggle it home, an investigative report released Thursday alleges.
Such was the scale of the purchases that local prices in one market in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, doubled to $318 per pound during the president’s visit, according to “Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the Devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants,” released by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
The report says the African country has emerged as the center of a resurgent elephant poaching industry, in large part because of fast-growing demand from China, where rising wealth and corruption have fueled the illegal trade in ivory.
Tanzania, according to the report, has lost half its elephants in the past five years. Last year alone, it says, about 10,000 were killed, or nearly 30 a day.
“International criminal syndicates are ruthlessly exploiting rising corruption and weak governance in Tanzania to plunder the country’s unique national heritage,” the EIA says.
China says ivory carving is part of its national heritage, and it allows workshops to operate legally, ostensibly using ivory from legal stockpiles purchased in 2008. But that legal trade, experts say, provides cover for vast illegal trafficking that has a devastating effect on Africa’s elephants while at the same time financing violent criminal and insurgent groups there.
China imposes much stricter sentences on ivory smugglers than the United States and has stepped up efforts to combat smuggling. In January, it destroyed a large ivory stockpile to underline its commitment to stamp out the illegal trade, and former NBA basketball star Yao Ming leads a growing list of celebrities campaigning to end the trade by educating people about its effects.
But the EIA says official corruption and greed are undermining those efforts. It cites traders in the Mwenge market in Dar es Salaam as saying that Chinese embassy staffers were the major buyers of ivory as far back as 2006. A presidential visit by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, in 2009, also caused a spike in demand for ivory, it alleges, while Chinese traders began buying up thousands of pounds of ivory before Xi’s state visit in 2013.
“The price was very high because the demand was high,” a trader named Suleiman told the EIA. “When the guest come, the whole delegation, that’s then time when the business goes up.”
In late December 2013, a Chinese naval task force visited the port at Dar es Salaam after conducting anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. One trader at Mwenge was reported to have told the EIA that the four-day visit netted him $50,000 in sales of ivory to military personnel.
The report says that one Chinese national, Yu Bo, was not so lucky after he was caught trying to smuggle 81 elephant tusks weighing 668 pounds onto the Chinese ships to sell to two mid-ranking Chinese naval officers. Despite paying a bribe worth $20,000, Yu was exposed when a supplier aggrieved at being underpaid tipped off the authorities, and he ended up being sentenced to 20 years in jail.
In China, investigators have had some recent successes. Trader Chen Buzhong was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013 for bringing nearly 8.5 tons of illegal ivory into the country under the cover of his legal ivory-carving company.
But the EIA report alleges that Mafia-style gangs from southern China still control a massive ivory trade, much of it channeled through the island of Zanzibar, a semiautonomous part of Tanzania, in consignments of marine products such as sea cucumbers and seashells.
The Chinese government, the report says, has also pushed up ivory prices by consciously positioning legal ivory as a luxury product and setting a high minimum price for its sale.
The EIA allegations come at an embarrassing time for the Chinese leadership. Last month, Xi hosted his Tanzanian counterpart, President Jakaya Kikwete, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two nations.
Next week, he plays host to President Obama, and the two leaders are expected to affirm their shared commitment to combating the trade in illegal wildlife, especially in ivory.
Officials in China’s State Forestry Administration were either unreachable for comment or said they did not know about the report.
Xu Jing contributed to this report.