DAR AS SALAAM, Tanzania — It is a bloody industry that is emptying the wilderness of a mighty beast — the noble elephant. But for the traders and the poachers behind the slaughter it is, simply, business.
The cost of Africa's poaching crisis is huge — but so are the rewards for those responsible. The lucrative trade has been witnessed by an undercover ITN News team, NBC News’ international partner.
Posing as a visiting businessman, our reporter went to a market in one of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest cities –Dar as Salaam in Tanzania. There, after just a few minutes, he was offered dozens of ivory products. Hearing a foreign accent, a trader locked him in conversation before revealing the range of items that he keeps hidden away in a back room.
There were ivory necklaces, shining white bracelets, crafted ornaments and tiny trinkets. Our reporter was offered the items for around $1,000 each.
And before leaving, he was told that there was plenty more ivory available — if he wanted it. A middle man made arrangements for a “bigger deal.”
"Depends on money — if you give money now… we’ll go into bush."
Three hours later, our team was invited into a smart hotel room where, from a shabby plastic bag, one trader revealed half an elephant tusk.
Unaware that we were secretly recording the exchange, the salesman said he wanted an immediate sale. He demanded $4,200 for the tusk before coldly offering to return to the wild to kill even more animals.
“Depends on money — if you give money now . . . we’ll go into bush,” the anxious trader told us as he tried to seal the deal.
For no extra charge, he even offered to get the ivory smuggled through airport customs and out of the country without detection – clear evidence of an organized criminal network.
Tanzania is suffering from one of Africa’s biggest poaching problems. In just one August 2011 bust, the authorities seized more than 1,000 elephant tusks concealed in sacks of dried fish on the exotic island of Zanzibar. The huge haul was destined for Malaysia.
There have been attempts to tackle the crisis, though some have been controversial. Last year, Tanzanian security forces temporarily adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected poachers.
The approach, nicknamed “Operation Terminate,” helped to cut the killings, but was dropped amid claims of human rights abuses.
The government minister responsible for ending poaching says he is pursuing the traders hard.
“We are telling them to please stop and we are telling them that our capacity to go after them has quadrupled” said Lazaro Nyalandu, Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources.
But he and other ministers have had to answer difficult questions themselves, after investigators exposed some of the poachers’ middle men as being civil servants who wanted a slice of the riches.
“Just this month we fired 27 government officials” he said. “These are government employees involved in poaching, antagonizing poaching. Once we found them we fired them”
Meanwhile Pratik Patel, a Tanzanian conservationist, fears his country might lose its elephants.
“The loss is just too big. And besides that, how can we afford to lose such a beautiful species? Can the world afford to stand by and let this happen? I think we need to stop the ivory trade.”
Given the vast sums involved in that trade, it's no wonder the poachers call rhino horn and ivory “white gold.” But that might become an inadequate description: Rhino horn is already worth more than its weight in gold and, ivory is on track to reach a similar, astronomical value.
This week, presidents and government officials from around the world will attempt to find a solution at a London summit hosted by Prince Charles and Prince William (days after he was pictured hunting deer and wild boar in Spain. There will be pledges of more support for African governments to cut the supply of ivory. But what about the demand?
The demand behind the recent surge in slaughter comes from the Far East. Although tastes for ivory ornaments and myths about the cancer-beating properties of rhino horn have been popular in parts of China for centuries, the country's economic boom has fueled demand and boosted prices.
Anti-terror sources also blame Al Shabaab, the Somali group which stormed a Kenyan shopping center in September killing 67 people, for some of the butchery. Fighters from Somalia are thought to have snuck across the borders with Kenya and Ethiopia to raid national parks — returning with cash to pay for guns and grenades
No matter who's behind the brutal trade, without a solution, the African elephant might be entering its final years.