TANZANIA:Woman caught smuggling ivory to China

FOUR suspects, including a self-described Dar es Salaam businesswoman and three airport officials employed by the Government, have been arrested at the Julius Nyerere International Airport (JNIA) for allegedly trying to smuggle ivory and other Government trophies to China.

The woman, 27-year old Devota Kassolo, is said to have been caught with whole elephant tusks and carvings made from ivory stuffed into a suitcase and destined for the Far East.

Three employees of the Tanzania Airports Authority (TAA) - Bakari Rashid, Nicholaus Jeremia, and Edmund Kabushemela were also nabbed for allegedly colluding with her in the smuggling attempt.

After being detained in custody following her arrest on Tuesday night, Ms Kassolo - who identified herself as a businesswoman - told the police in front of reporters at the airport that the consignment belonged to a Chinese national based in Dar es Salaam known as ’’Mr Zhung.’’

She claimed to be just working for the Chinese man and did not know the origins of the elephant tusks and other Government trophies.

’’These items are not mine...I was just following instructions from the owner whose name is Mr Zhung,’’ she pleaded with police in front of reporters.

She said ’’Mr Zhung’’ had told her all the key airport officials had been ’’sorted out’’ to ensure the illegal consignment passed through airport security unhindered.

The Commander of the Airport Police Unit, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Mwajuma Kiponza, said police officers on duty on Tuesday evening observed suspicious movements by several airport employees as the suitcase went through the usual customs checking procedures.

They (police) then intervened and ordered that the suitcase be opened, hence discovering the Government trophies within.

ACP Kiponza described it as ’’the biggest heist of ivory ever made at this airport.’’ She said several Chinese nationals have in the past been arrested with smaller packages of Government trophies.

’’We are still investigating this incident with a view to arresting more suspects,’’ she added.

The Government trophies seized on Tuesday included five elephant tusks, 55 ivory sculptures, 86 chopsticks made from jumbo tusks, jewellery, and dozens of other items made from ivory.

Police also found 60 lion claws and teeth, 82 bracelets and rings made from turtle shells, and several other items. Suspected cocaine narcotics were also found in the suitcase.

Officials said the entire contraband, which weighs a total of 53 kilogrammes, will be sent to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism for verification of total value.

A recently-devised revolutionary genetic technique to pinpoint areas in Africa where elephants are being slaughtered more frequently has revealed that Tanzania is at the centre of the continent’s poaching activities to feed a worldwide trade in illegal ivory.

Using a DNA map of Africa’s elephants, scientists have found that most recent seizures of jumbo tusks can be traced to animals that grazed in the Selous Game Reserve, situated in the country’s southern zone.

The discovery suggests that only a handful of cartels are responsible for most of the world’s booming trade in illegal ivory, and for the annual slaughter of tens of thousands of elephants.

The smuggled ivory is said to be aimed at satisfying the Far East’s growing appetite for ivory, a new status symbol for the middle classes of the region’s swelling industrialized economies.

As a result, ivory prices have soared from $200 a kilo in 2004 to more than $6,000 today.

Six officials of the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) are currently facing court charges on suspicion of involvement in a multi-million-dollar organised crime syndicate smuggling large numbers of elephant tusks through the port of Dar es Salaam to foreign lands.

The TRA sixtet were arrested specifically in connection with the smuggling of jumbo tusks worth a staggering $29.41m (approx. 40bn/-) from Tanzania to Vietnam in March this year .

Article from ThisDay: Sayuni Kimaro