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Chinese leader's delegation to Tanzania bought so much illegal ivory the price doubled

A 5 month old orphaned elephant named Tembo plays with a keeper at a Tanzanian wildlife sanctuary
A 5 month old orphaned elephant named Tembo plays with a keeper at a Tanzanian wildlife sanctuary
(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

China is the world's largest importer of smuggled elephant tusks. Tanzania is the world's number-one source country for illegal ivory. So perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the increased ties between the two countries would have negative consequences for Tanzania's elephants.

However, the scale of the problem is shocking, as is the tenacity with which Chinese buyers are snapping up ivory. According to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Investigative Agency, when Chinese Premier Xi Jinping visited Tanzania in 2013, members of his delegation bought so much illegal ivory that the local price temporarily doubled to $700 per kilo.

The elephants are disappearing with remarkable speed. EIA estimates that Tanzania had about 142,000 elephants when President Jakaya Kikwete assumed office in 2005. However, by the time he steps down in late 2015, the elephant population will likely have plummeted to about 55,000.

EIA elephant population chart


Although the Chinese markets offer an incentive for the illegal trade, it is corruption within Tanzania that has allowed it to flourish. According to EIA, responsibility for the poaching reaches the highest levels of the Tanzanian government. Senior politicians within the ruling party use their influence to protect ivory traffickers. Game rangers within wildlife preserves provide poachers with information about elephant herd locations. Police officers assist in ivory transport, even allowing poachers to use their weapons. And Tanzanian Revenue Authority officers allow ivory to leave Tanzania.

The loss of any endangered species to the trinket trade would be a tragedy. But it is particularly sad in the case of elephants, which are highly intelligent and form strong, stable family bonds. They are believed to grieve their dead, as shown in this video from the BBC:

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