Murky Namibian elephant deal might involve as much as $22 million paid to someone, even if oil rights are not involved
WINDHOEK, Namibia––Two weeks after the Namibian government sold 170 elephants to five undisclosed buyers, to be transported to parts unknown, Namibian minister of environment and tourism Pohamba Shifeta has yet to reveal the details of the transaction, including how much money is involved and who will be getting it.
Minister says deal is to help farmers
But Shifeta, evidently feeling more than just the usual sub-Saharan tropical heat, did defend the deal to the Namibian parliament on March 10, 2021.
Shifeta told the assembled parliamentarians that, “Namibia has seen a surge in incidents of human-wildlife conflicts involving elephants, buffaloes and other species, mainly in the north and northeastern parts of the country,” from which the 170 elephants were reportedly taken, paraphrased Reuters correspondent Nyasha Nyaungwa.
“Shifeta told lawmakers that elephants had caused the most damage to crops, water infrastructure and property in nine of the country’s 14 regions,” Nyaungwa added.
“Small-scale farmers living close to the Bwabwata National Park in northeastern Namibia say marauding elephants invading their fields and eating their near-mature crops are a threat to food security,” continued Nyaungwa’s summary.
Anglican bishops hint deal may be about oil
Shifeta addressed the Namibian parliament one day after the Namibian Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, and the oil field development firm ReconAfrica, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, each received petitions against an oil drilling project which may be related to the mysterious elephant sale, signed by thirty-four Anglican bishops and three archbishops.
“Anglican bishops across the world have signed a petition calling for an immediate halt to oil drilling in the Kavango Basin, in northern Namibia, in an area where elephants roam,” reported Peter Kenny for Ecumenical News.
“The drive for the petition began,” Kenny said, “when Bishop Luke Pato,” head of the Anglican Church in Namibia, alerted fellow clergy “that exploratory drilling for oil had commenced.”
Said Pato, “There are many questions to be answered.”
“ReconAfrica bought rights to drill”
Continued Kenny, “The search for oil and gas in the watershed of the world-famous, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta moved a step closer when a multimillion-dollar drilling rig from Houston, Texas, broke ground on the first test well in Namibia on January 11, 2021.
“ReconAfrica bought rights to drill for oil in more than 35,000 square kilometers of the Kavango Basin, an environmentally sensitive protected area that supplies water to the Okavango Delta,” Kenny recounted. “The basin is a World Heritage and Ramsar Wetland Site, a key biodiversity area and one of the seven natural wonders of Africa, home to the largest remaining population of African elephants, 400 species of birds, and many other animals.”
Said the Anglican bishops’ petition, “With almost unrivaled solar energy potential, extracting billions of barrels of oil makes no sense. Concerns raised by local activists have been belittled and The Namibian, the national newspaper which broke the story, is being threatened with legal action.”
Karl Ammann offers perspective
Internationally renowned wildlife trafficking investigator and photographer Karl Ammann, 72, a Swiss-born longtime resident of Kenya, meanwhile does not know any more than ANIMALS 24-7 or anyone else not involved in the transaction who bought the 170 missing elephants.
But Ammann, from the perspective of more than 40 years of documenting clandestine animal dealing, including having extensively looked into multiple sales of elephants from Zimbabwe to Chinese zoos, did offer ANIMALS 24-7 some educated guesses within hours of publication of our March 8, 2021 report Did Chinese zoos buy 170 Namibian elephants sold at secret auction?
“There have been no imports [into China] of any live animals for zoos and safari parks last year because of the big biodiversity conference which was planned for Kunming. The Chinese wanted to avoid any kind of embarrassing issue arising in this context,” Ammann emailed. “So there are lot of dealers with shipments ready to go, waiting for the go ahead.”
Therefore, Ammann said, he “would be surprised if the elephants went to China,” at least in the near future.
Chinese zoos “want young trainable elephants”
The United Nations Biodiversity conference was originally scheduled for October 15-28, 2020, but in July 2020 was postponed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic until May 17-30, 2021.
“I have some first-hand accounts of dealers in China saying that the government has stopped import of high profile species until this United Nations conference is over,” Ammann told ANIMALS 24-7. “So I doubt that Chinese zoos would be asking for import permits at this stage. However, maybe they would stipulate to hold them [the elephants] somewhere until this conference is over and imports will again take off.
“They [Chinese zoos] also want young trainable elephants,” Ammann mentioned. “They do not have many qualified mahouts and working with adult elephants they find more than just difficult. Of course they then also want to use them in a breeding set-up, which they see as the longer term return on such an investment.”
But China, claiming 18,000 licensed zoos of all sizes, 7.5 times more than are licensed to operate in the United States, is really the only obvious potential end destination for 170 elephants, even if dealers in other nations are acting as brokers.
Chinese zoos declare paying far more for elephants than Zimbabwean officials acknowledge receiving
Ammann also shared documentation from Chinese sources showing discrepancies between what Chinese buyers declared that they paid for Zimbabwean elephants and what Zimbabwean officials admitted receiving.
The Taihu Longemont Animal Paradise in Huzhou, China, for instance, in 2017 appears to have paid from $125,000 to $128,000 in U.S. dollars for each of 32 elephants.
Eleven of these elephants were then resold to another Chinese zoo that Ammann described as “one of the biggest traditional Chinese medicine and tiger wine producers.”
Some elephants may also have been rented to other zoos at the rate of $10,000 U.S. per month, Ammann learned.
“A well-informed animal dealer in South Africa told me that he was aware of a U.S. $100,000 price tag per Zimbabwe elephant for each of four shipped by Elske Burger,” another South African animal dealer, “to Dubai in 2018,” Ammann continued.
Yet, Ammann noted, “The revenue declared by the Zim Parks authorities is around U.S. $32,000 per elephant.
Who gets the money?
“Overall,” Ammann said, “it is clear that the source country, Zimbabwe, despite having spent considerable resources in helicopter time and holding of the animals for months in bomas at Hwange National Park, only ended up with about 25% of what the end purchaser [in China] paid for the elephants.
“The following question arises: how are the remaining 75% shared? There are the transport costs, which generally involves a 747 cargo plane, and then all the kickbacks, bribes and commissions that seem to go to a range of players.
“In the case of Zimbabwe,” Ammann alleged, “these include well-known Chinese brokers. There is also reliable information that the National Parks Board officials cashed in, and there are two brokers/agents listed at the China end who would have added their margin. The incentives for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] import permits are said to be considerable. We heard, from several sources in the region, of prices of U.S. $160,000 per permit and per shipment.
“We assume that the same happens at the Zimbabwe end when it comes to the export permits,” Ammann continued.
“Money laundering & tax evasion”
“The money flows, which often seem to go via middlemen in Hong Kong, involve standard patterns of money laundering and tax evasion. Overall, a wide range of infractions of national laws at the demand and supply end,” Ammann charged. “This of course would mean that none of the corresponding CITES permits could be legal.
“An interesting component in this,” Ammann mentioned, “is that the secretary general of CITES, Ivonne Higuero, early in her administration,” which began in 2018, “was taken to see the last lot of elephants exported [from Zimbabwe], the 32 going to Longemont. At a press conference in Geneva she confirmed this visit to the holding bomas in Zimbabwe, indicating that they looked to be in good condition as far as she was concerned!”
Ammann estimated that as much as $13 million might be unaccounted for in connection with the Zimbabwean elephant sales to China, noting that “Zimbabwe is now one of the most corrupt countries in Africa,” about three times more corrupt than Namibia, according to Transparency International.
If the 170 Namibian elephants were sold for the same price apiece as Zimbabwean authorities acknowledged receiving, the Namibian ministry for environment and tourism might have received more than $5.4 million for them.
If the purchasers of the 170 Namibian elephants are paying as much per elephant as did the Chinese zoos that bought the Zimbabwean elephants, according to the documents that Ammann forwarded, they might be shelling out $21.8 million, leaving $16.3 million unaccounted for.