Hassan Nkussa sits in a conference room on the fourth floor of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. On the door of the conference room a panel reads "Selous", the name of the largest game reserve in the country, but inside the interior is drab. Nine tables form a "U" shape and around them sit an assortment of mismatched, faux-leather chairs. The unadorned, dirty white walls are the antithesis of the vast reserve after which the room is named, with no images—or reminders—of the wildlife that the ministry is charged with protecting.
Mr. Nkussa has short, clipped hair, a light salt-and-pepper moustache and carries a briefcase. He is an attorney by trade, and carries with him a copy of the Wildlife and Conservation Act of 2009, a document of which he displays intimate knowledge, often answering questions with legal terminology as set-out by the act. He speaks slowly, stuttering at times between ideas, as he describes an operation he commanded in his role as Supervising Officer for Investigations and Prosecutions.
Last Thursday's seizure took place in Dar es-Salaam, on July 4, 2013. Mr. Nkussa's team raided a large house in Mbezi, a suburb on the outskirts of Tanzania's economic heart and the country's major port, and seized 347 pieces of ivory; the tusks of 174 elephants, weighing 1049kg. Eight men are currently being interrogated by Tanzanian authorities, and investigations are underway to determine the source of ivory. "There have been a series of search missions - undercover investigations," says Mr. Nkussa, "in order to intercept and dismantle the poaching network."
Throughout the country, his team has a network of informers, some of whom he says are poachers themselves, who tip-off the anti-poaching squad when ivory is on the move. If ivory slips through his initial informers in the villages where poaching takes place, "then from there they should find some hurdles". It was this network that led Mr. Nkussa's team to raid the house last Thursday, after having at least two consignments arriving separately.
"We are trying to trace the source: the mode of transportation from point A - who were involved, whether in killing [the elephants], and then who were the middle men, and then up to the point where they were intercepted. ... So just trying to go further from that point, what was the destination? Who else is involved?"
The team have found evidence that the ivory was destined for neighbouring Malawi, where it would be hidden amongst bags of cement. From there, he believes, the consignment would be repacked in sealed packages as "transit goods", so as to avoid inspection by Tanzanian authorities.
The Wildlife Division bases its estimates of the value of the ivory on the lost revenue that they would earn from legal hunting. "We base the value of the tusks on the value of a live elephant if it were to be hunted by a tourist" says John Muya, the deputy chief of Anti-Poaching in the Wildlife Division. One elephant hunting license would cost a tourist $15,000 (USD), and so the seizure of 347 tusks—147 elephants—equates to $2,610,000. For this seizure of 1049kg, that represents $2488 per kilo; whilst the market price in China is often quoted at around $2000 per kilo. "That is why people are trying to struggle to kill the elephants, because the market is so lucrative" explains Mr. Nkussa.
Despite the large gains to be made, the penalty can be severe. The owner of the house where the ivory was seized will be charged with "unlawful possession of a government trophy", which carries a minimum sentence of 20 years, and "unlawful dealing in trophies" also carrying a sentence of 20 years. "We expect this guy to get at least 30-40 years" says Mr. Nkussa.
Whilst corruption is rife in Tanzania, with many perpetrators walking away from their crime, Mr. Nkussa is confident that their recent arrest will yield results. "With this huge seizure, then we even object the bail," he explains, "this was a major seizure", the largest since the start of the year.
Mr. Nkussa is very pragmatic in his approach to illegal poaching, measuring ivory seizures in terms of lost revenue to the government, and explaining the wider problem in terms of damage to the economy. "A tourist who travels from the U.S., he boards planes, he pays fares, he then stays in the hotels, and his intention is to see our protected areas with the elephants, for example. Now, someone who just comes and kills them. He is killing the economy of the country really!"
Whilst many of the division's arrests are of Tanzanians, they have also prosecuted foreigners. "The Chinese are master-minding" Mr. Nkussa claims. "Some of them could come here as tourists, and stay in the big hotels as a tourist and enjoy, but is coordinating issues", referring to their Tanzanian counterparts. And the risks to poachers are grave: "the guys who go into the protected area, some of them get killed! Because to go through the rangers there it is very risky. And the rangers really protect at all costs. They are so firm!"
Pulling out a copy of the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2009, Mr. Nkussa defends the rangers' right to shoot to kill. "We normally teach our rangers their rights, while they are enforcing their duties. The law is there, the law is good, it allows them to use weapons whenever they are in danger, which means they can shoot to kill," he says, before reading a passage of the Act concerning the "right to possess and use firearms and ammunition."
As well as Chinese involvement, Mr. Nkussa says that there is evidence of rebel groups, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 rebels, bartering in ivory for weapons. "They get weapons and they give back tusks. We are having clues of that nature" he says.
But talking about Chinese involvement, Mr. Nkussa's nervousness increases. "The director said I should talk only on this [operation] so I cannot talk outside of the process."
His nervousness also stems from his role as a prosecutor against those he has helped to capture. Mr. Nkussa is an active advocate of the high court, and says he has prosecuted "many, many cases" during his "15-20 years" serving the anti-poaching division as an expert wildlife prosecutor. "They may seek revenge," he says of the people he has sent down, gesturing with his fingers of a gun pointed at his head. "We lead very simple lives to avoid any problems."
Despite his pragmatic approach to the problems of poaching, he describes his job with gusto, saying of large cases he is there "to make sure that the culprits are getting their good share of imprisonment." His parting words are "fighting poaching is everybody's responsibility - it is a participatory activity."