Dar es Salaam. A covert anti-poaching operation that began early this year in Katavi has found a Pentecostal Church involved in coordinating, storing and transporting ivory and arms.
In the ongoing operation dubbed: Spidenet, conducted by a special unit under the Task Force of NTSCIU (National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit) weapon manuals and a new HF radio which was kept in a darkroom were found and seized at a church.
According to a source closely working with the special unit who preferred anonymity, two pastors were arrested but later released and placed under surveillance.
“We have embarked on an intensive anti-poaching covert operation, this time around focusing more on intelligence than ad-hock operations such as the tainted “Tokomeza” that was halted after alleged human rights abuse,” said the source.
Operation “Spidernet,” launched earlier this year, has recorded a tremendous success only few months after it was launched, indicating that Tanzania will eventually manage to control rampant poaching that threatens the very existence of African jumbos which have been killed for their tusks.
With appropriate technology to trace the culprits, the operation began in Katavi National Park, involving a special unit comprising personnel from the Task Force of NTSCIU, the Police Force, Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services (TISS), Immigration Department, Tanzania National Parks Authority (Tanapa), the Wildlife Division and informers.
The operation, aimed at halting large-scale poaching in Katavi through identifying, arresting and prosecuting as many of the syndicate members as possible and confiscating weapons, targeted 12 of 32 villages within the Katumba Refugee Camp.
The source close to the operation confided to The Citizen that, almost 80 per cent of the arrested culprits were ex-Hutu rebels from Burundi. “Those interrogated are ex soldiers (rebels), very tough and do not want to reveal the location of weapons,” said the source.
The operation is ongoing in Katavi and Ruaha national parks as well as in the Selous Game Reserve, the source said, adding that it focuses on gathering intelligence, identifying the suspects, arresting and prosecuting them. “One of the major successes of the operation is that we have at least arrested four big dealers and over 40 facilitators whose cases were pending in court,” he added.
During the operation in Katavi, for instance, the source said, over 100 firearms were found hidden in the bush near Katavi National Park.
Success under Spidenet
During its preparation stage, the team had 70 personnel assembled at Nyati Camp at Mlele near the Katavi-Rukwa border -- about 140km from Katumba Refugee Camp.
“The operation started mid January. Late in the night, the unit drove 140km from Mlele to a temporary base just outside Katumba. Vehicles went out from this base to different villages, conducted arrests, dropped off arrested people at the base and went on to the next village. Once each arrest operation was over, our teams and suspects returned to Mlele for safety and for interrogation processes, taking statements, and so on,” said the source.
According to the source, 95 people were arrested, with no injuries, in the first 18 hours of the operation. Seven firearms, including a rifle, sub-machine gun (SMG) and semi-automatic weapon with 694 rounds of ammunition were seized. Also two vehicles and a bus were seized. “One of the interesting things is that we also seized a new HF radio which was kept in a darkroom in a church,” added the source.
“Most of the arrested suspects confessed to be involved in poaching and to be in illegal possession of firearms. In February at Mpanda, 59 suspects were sentenced, ranging from one to two-year jail terms or fined between Sh400,000 and Sh1,000,000. Eleven accused persons were acquitted, but were placed under police supervision for two years,” said the source.
According to the source, one interesting arrest was of a man (name withheld), who was found with 43 tusks in December, but escaped. “He is awaiting trial for that case with possible minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of 30 years in jail and a fine equivalent to the value of the tusks,” he added.
On December 3, three people were arrested with 43 pieces of ivory in the Katavi ecosystem. However, two of them managed to escape, but later on, they were re-arrested during the Spidenet operation.
In Ruaha, 9 people with 7 weapons and 36 bullets were arrested in January, while in the following months, four people were arrested with a rifle, 375 bullets and 24 pieces of ivory at Madibira, Ruaha. The ongoing operation in the Selous managed to arrest two suspects with 61 tusks in February. Three others were arrested following investigation, the source said.
According to the source, one person (name withheld) and two dealers were arrested with ivory in February.
The arrests made under the operation revealed a huge syndicate of ivory dealers, sending Tanzanian and Mozambique ivory to Burundi. It is believed that they have facilitated the killing of over 3,000 elephants. According to the source, three people, who were involved in transporting ammunition from Katavi to Mozambique, were also arrested. “They were caught with 500 rounds of ammunition, including 366 for SMG and 166 for G3,” he noted.
The source said confidently that with the ongoing pace of the operation and the support by the government and other stakeholders, within the next few years Tanzania will be in a position to curb rampant poaching.
“Despite some challenges, I’m optimistic that we will prevent poaching by 70 per cent if everyone plays his or her role well,” he said.
“There are dishonest staff who derail anti-poaching drives. For instance, during our operations, we found out that there are local police officers and court staff who had to be replaced,” he said. Among some challenges, he pointed out include lack of modern facilities and specialised training to personnel from the anti-poaching unit.
In the follow-up stage to the operation during interrogation, many more names obtained from others involved in poaching syndicates from which 22 more arrests were made including a suspect (name withheld) at Manyovu border, who initially escaped arrest.
“Twelve were interrogated and taken to court where their cases are pending while 10 had to be taken to Dar es Salaam for further interrogation. One more arrest of a suspect, who escaped from the refugee camp during the operation was made in Dar es Salaam. He was found with 4 tusks,” he noted.
“In general, since the project started, we have 23 cases in court involving 106 people. 16 cases are at mention and hearing stages, 6 at full hearing stage, one at hearing stage, while 59 accused persons were sentenced to between one and two years in jail or fined. Those who are eligible to receive 20 to 30 year jail sentences have their cases still waiting to be heard,” he added.
How poaching syndicates operate
According to the source, a unit of poaching syndicate may involve a team of between 70 and 100 people who go into the field for poaching, with dealers and facilitators as middlemen.
First, there is a reconnaissance team of 10 people with 5 weapons who go for survey and scouting for elephants.
Then there is a killing team that involves a navigator, shooter, cooks, porters, and tusk removers. This could have between 50 and 70 people with about 15 weapons. Then there is a rear guard with about 10 people with 5 weapons.
The teams will stay in the field for about three weeks to accomplish their ill-mission. According to the intelligence gathered, the syndicates operate for years in various areas including Ugalla, Moyowosi-Kigosi,Ruaha-Ruangwa and more recently in northern Mozambique.
However, according to another source who is closely involved in the operation, there is a need to tell the world of a human side of poaching in Tanzania. “I think the human side of poaching in Tanzania should be told. The ‘Mzungus’ (people from the West), will only talk about criminals and the syndicate of Chinese dealers. In Tanzania, a great part of those involved in poaching are poor people, living in communities surrounding the parks,” he noted.
“Most of these people who went to the field are ignorant and they do not actually know the implication of their actions. They do it for a living. I mean, for a pay. Here, poverty is also a driving factor. They risk their lives for as little as Sh20,000 per each kilogramme of the tusk they bring to a dealer, probably living a luxurious life in big cities,” explained the source.
According to him, a shooter is paid between Sh5,000 and Sh10,000 for each kilogramme of a tusk of the elephant he kills. One elephant tusk could weigh between 10kg and 15kg. A tusk remover, who can take hardly five minutes to accomplish the job, is paid Sh5,000 for each kilogramme of the tusk he removes. A porter, who has to carry two tusks weighing about 30kg from the point where the elephant was killed to where they hide the tusks before being transported to a hideout, is paid between Sh5,000 and Sh10,000 for each kilogramme.
With all these expenses, it will not cost the dealer more than Sh500,000 for a 15kg tusk while he will earn about Sh5 million after selling it to big dealers who export the tusks through their syndicates.
“What we are focusing in this intelligence-led operation is to identify and eventually dismantle these networks. However, this requires a great deal of preparations, training of personnel and modern facilities to successfully accomplish the mission,” he said.
Recently, the Task Force of NTSCIU conducted a training at the Dar es Salaam Police Academy to 22 personnel aimed at building the capacity of the anti-poaching unit. The training, funded by PAMS Foundation in association with Askari Maritime Logistics, was attended by rangers and staff from the Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa), Director of Public Prosecution, the Ministry of Tourism and National Resources, Wildlife Department and the Namtumbo District Natural Resource Office.
The best of the best trainers from several security and law enforcement agencies in the country trained participants in criminal investigation skills, evidence management, search and seizure, interrogation of witnesses, recording statements and confessions, intelligence analysis, and the proper use of legislation.