The United Nations could slap sanctions on Tanzania and other African countries for failing to end poaching, which is threatening to wipe out elephants and rhinos.
Tanzania could be targeted because it is currently considered a transit country in ivory smuggling, according to reports from the UN. Others countries considered to be transit routes include Kenya, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The UN and conservationists want a twin-pronged approach, targeting both producers of ivory in Africa – including countries such as Gabon, Kenya, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and Uganda – and consumer countries such as China and Thailand.
“It’s a simmering issue,” said a UN diplomat, adding that two international conferences to address the subject were held in Botswana and France in December.
The UN Security Council has already moved to impose sanctions on ivory hunters and traffickers in the DRC and CAR.
Two resolutions adopted by the council last week stated that the trade in illegal wildlife was fueling conflicts in the region and bankrolling organised crime.
Under the resolutions, the council can impose sanctions, such as freezing assets or restricting travel, on any individual found to be involved in wildlife trafficking.
The resolutions were primarily designed to target a number of armed rebel groups operating in eastern DRC.
But some UN members and conservationists urged the council at its meeting last week to impose trade sanctions on countries that have failed to stop ivory trafficking.
Some observers say Tanzania is both a transit country and producer of ivory.
Poaching has reached alarming levels in the country, and a census conducted late last year in the Selous-Mikumi and Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystems revealed a sharp decline in elephant numbers.
It put the current number of elephants in the Selous-Mikumi ecosystem at 13,084, which is a 66 per cent drop from the 38,975 animals counted in 2009.
The elephant population in Ruaha-Ruangwa dropped by 35 per cent from 31,625 to 20,090 during the period.
Statistics from previous censuses show that there were 109, 419 elephants in Selous-Mikumi in 1976, but the number crashed to 22,208 in 1991 following a wave of poaching between 1984 and 1989.
The launch of the countrywide Operesheni Uhai (operation life) in 1990 led to a rapid increase in elephant numbers in Selous-Mikumi, where 70,406 animals were counted in 2006 before a sharp decrease left only 13,084 pachyderms roaming the two sanctuaries.
Alarmed at the decline, the government last year launched Operesheni Tokomeza (operation eradicate) that was aimed at stamping out poaching in national parks, game reserves and other protected areas.
The operation was, however, suspended in November amid claims of widespread human rights abuses, leading to the removal of four Cabinet ministers.
The government said yesterday that it would establish an anti-poaching unit as part of efforts to protect wildlife.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion in Dar es Salaam, Natural Resources and Tourism minister Lazaro Nyalandu said the plan would be jointly implemented with donors and coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme.
“The involvement of donors is meant to ensure transparency and efficiency,” Mr Nyalandu said, adding that the development partners would fund the unit during the first four years of its existence.
The minister said the country was grappling with an acute shortage of game wardens.
“We need to recruit 3,767 new wardens to bridge the shortfall. We currently have only 1,088 wardens, which is a very small number,” he said.
The German Embassy charge d’affaires, Mr Hans Koppel, said plans to set up an anti-poaching unit was a positive development.
“This is a great idea because we need to preserve wildlife. The establishment of this unit will go a long way in fighting poaching. The Germany government is willing to help…that’s why we are here,” he said.
Mr Koppel said his country in 2012 provided Tanzania with grants totaling 31.5 million euros (Sh70 billion) that were channelled into various areas, including anti-poaching activities.
The United Kingdom High Commissioner, Ms Diana Melrose, said researchers and scientists should find an alternative to ivory.
“It’s high time scientists came up with an alternative to ivory… if we want to destroy the market then we need to find another material to replace ivory,” she said.
Ms Melrose added that the UK had established a special fund to cater for wildlife issues and advised the government to forward proposals that would enable it to access the funds.
She urged developed countries to buy Tanzania’s ivory stockpiles, currently valued at $60 million (Sh96 billion), and destroy them. Tanzania could then use the money it would earn to fund anti-poaching activities.
European Union Ambassador Filiberto Sebregondi said the envisaged unit should work closely with security organs to ensure it succeeds in its endeavour.