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IN THE HUNT

A safari company suspended for graphic wildlife abuse is back in action, with the Tanzanian government’s support

  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

Lake Natron, in Tanzania, is a serene expanse of water where flamingoes stop on their migration, below the titanic bulk of Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano revered by Masai people who live here. The variety of animals in the remote semi-desert environment—greater kudu, water buffalo, and eland—attract the safari business, with trophy-hunting tourists paying for camps and guides.

If you remember Cecil the Lion, you know this isn’t a subject without controversy. In Tanzania, where few resources are available for conservation, hunting blocks are leased by dozens of companies, who are expected to finance anti-poaching patrols and often invest in basic infrastructure in the area. Environmental activists say that this model is more exception than rule, with hunting groups ignoring or flouting conservation rules.

Regardless, the extraordinary natural beauty and resources of the land around Lake Natron remain a key resource to be employed on behalf of the people of Tanzania—or abused. The rights to maintain and hunt these sites are scarce resources. Now, a dispute over these hunting blocks between two safari groups backed by wealthy individuals—one, the Friedkin Conservation Fund from the US; the other, Green Mile Safaris, connected to the rulers of Abu Dhabi—has spiraled into an unsettling story of corruption and animal abuse, some depicted in the exclusively obtained videos above.

“I don’t think one can bribe everyone.”

The allegations—that Green Mile, a company banned from operating in Tanzania, was handed the Friedkin Conservation Fund’s hunting grounds in a back-room deal—have tarnished the administration of John Magufuli, Tanzania’s recently elected president. Winning office last October as an anti-corruption voice within the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party (CCM), he now faces international criticism for the handling of elections in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the country’s coast, and for cracking down on his political opposition.

The opposition say this saga of rival safari companies is an example of the government’s failings.

“Magufuli is a perfectionist of the existing corrupt system rather than a transformative…knowingly or unknowingly,” Zitto Kabwe, a transparency advocate and opposition member of parliament, told Quartz via e-mail. “The whole Green Mile scandal from being ordered out of the country to…being favored to get blocks they didn’t bid in open tender, to impunity they have shown, shows how corrupt the CCM-state system is.”

Dangerous duties

Roger Gower had been an accountant in London before he decided to seek a more adventurous life. In 2006, he moved to Tanzania to fly a helicopter, sometimes the mundane work of shuttling tourists and workers around the bush, but often a more exciting task: Hunting poachers from above.

In January, Gower and a spotter were flying low near Serengeti national park, tracking hunters who had killed three elephants illegally to harvest their ivory tusks. One of the poachers opened fire with an automatic rifle, and Gower was shot through the floor of the chopper. Losing blood, he managed to maneuver the craft close to the ground so his spotter would survive the impact of landing. Gower died from his wounds before medical help could arrive. He was 37.

The Tanzanian Air Force has just one helicopter, a deficit in resources that gives an idea of how little there is to prevent illegal hunting of threatened species. Gower was flying for the Friedkin Conservation Fund, a trust created by a wealthy Texas family, which would not comment on this story. The fund is lead by Daniel Friedkin, son of Thomas Friedkin, a former race car driver who ignored the conventional wisdom of the 1970s and struck an exclusive deal to import Toyotas across the American south. His foresight made him a billionaire, and his love of the hunt brought him to Africa.

AP/iTV Tanzania
Jumanne Maghembe, the minister of tourism and natural resources, visits the wreckage of Gower’s helicopter.

His family trust holds the leases to several hunting blocks in Tanzania, including one near Lake Natron through a subsidiary called Wengert Windrose Safaris (WWS). They have built camps and run tourism operations, but also work to protect wildlife, fight poachers, and invest in local villages—all told, they say, more than $300 million since 1987. But despite that 30-year history in the country, their relationship with the local government is complicated.

“Tanzania is a sovereign nation so it is up to Tanzanians to take charge of their situation.”

When nine local men were charged in Gower’s killing, the Friedkin Fund expressed its confidence “that the Tanzanian authorities will investigate and prosecute those involved to the absolute full extent of the law.” But friends of Gower’s complain that prosecutors ignored a wider web of government officials and foreign gangs who profit from smuggling poached ivory.

Indeed, one noted lion researcher and conservationist, Craig Packer, was banned from visiting Tanzania after criticizing the country’s oversight of trophy-hunting and alleging corruption among the government officials who are supposed to prevent illegal hunts.

Just a few months after Gower died in the fight against poaching, in May 2016, Wengert Windrose Safaris (WWS) received a letter informing them they were being evicted from their Lake Natron hunting block. Even more surprising was who was copied on the eviction letter—the new lease-holders, a company called Green Mile Safari.

Green Mile

Green Mile Safari is an infamous name in Tanzania. Just over half the company is owned by Awadh Ally Abdallah, a wealthy Tanzanian, and 48% is owned by Sheikh Abdullah bin Butti Al Hamed, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and government official. The son of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince has reputedly joined him at the company’s hunts, and bin Butti is even featured in some of the videos.

“He’s very rich, his main hobby is hunting,” Yahya Kishashu, an advisor to Green Mile, told Quartz. “When he comes to hunt in Tanzania, he would like to be hosted by a person he trusts.”

Green Mile’s reputation came about thanks to a video leaked in 2014. Apparently made in 2012 to promote the company’s safari trips, the video shows repeated and brazen violations of Tanzania’s hunting laws—indeed, of the sporting norms promoted by hunters around the world eager to portray themselves as responsible stewards of the land.

Quartz, through WildLeaks, a WikiLeaks-style project of the Elephant Action League, has exclusively obtained three more videos produced by Green Mile during this time period; we’ve published a selection of the material at the top of this page.

Among the shocking violations in the Green Mile video are hunting with automatic weapons, having children hunt with automatic weapons, gunning down fleeing animals from moving cars, capturing baby animals and torturing dying ones, and using bait and lights at night to attract unsuspecting animals. The video was brought to parliament and became a national sensation.

“We cannot deny that we see some of our tourists in that video, but what happened is something…we were also shocked,” Green Mile advisor Kishashu says. He claims a rival hunting guide applied for a job at Green Mile in order to sabotage its business with evidence of hunting malpractice. “The video was cleverly planted by our business rivals.”

But the explanation of a rogue guide is hard to believe, given the extent of the video and that it was allegedly produced to promote the company; the legend appears on one video reading, in Arabic, “snapshots from our third group trip vacation.” And the image of a child who appears in the videos also appeared, holding a dead baboon, in a photo on Green Mile’s now-shuttered website, which was preserved by the Internet Archive.

Green Mile
A screenshot of a child holding a dead baboon appeared on Green Mile’s former website.

To wildlife activists, the videos prove the concession model has failed.

“For one hunting concession that manages to do anti-poaching, there are many others that don’t care,” Andrea Crosta, the executive director of EAL, says. “Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique, places where trophy hunting is allowed, are all countries with serious poaching problems. In Kenya there is no trophy hunting, and the situation is much, much better than Tanzania.”

Name change, block swap?

Despite the anti-hunting bent of the video’s purveyors, the Friedkin Fund has found itself grateful for the widespread media attention it generated regarding a competitor’s unsavory practices. It was publicized just as Green Mile was trying to seize its Lake Natron concession for the first time.

During a reallocation of hunting blocks in 2013, a block called Lake Natron North was subdivided, and Friedkin subsidiary WWS and Green Mile received adjoining blocks. The one given to WWS had been operated by the company for more than 25 years and was seen as more valuable. WWS officials say that soon after the allocation, they caught Green Mile advertising trips to the WWS block at an international safari show in California.

Benh Lieu Song/CC/www.flickr.com/photos/blieusong/
A photo of Lake Natron taken from nearby Kenya.

That confrontation spurred a conflict, which centers on a decision made by Tanzanian officials after the blocks were allocated. WWS contends that government officials switched not only the names of the blocks, but the blocks themselves, at Green Mile’s behest. WWS assembled a compelling paper trail of maps and documents from 2011 to today that suggest at best an opaque and arbitrary process but at worst a clear effort to reverse the allocation.

Unable to obtain remediation, they began a series of legal battles to keep their claim. Green Mile and the government maintain that they simply changed the name of the blocks without altering who went where, and point to WWS as the greedy party. 

“That’s when the problems started, Wengert really wanted both,” major general Gaudence Milanzi, the permanent secretary at the ministry that regulates the hunting trade, told Quartz. “They made it appear that this naming was actually swapping. It was not swapping, even when it was renamed.”

One letter provided to Quartz by Green Mile demonstrates the government’s vehemence. It was written in 2013 by the then-minister of hunting and natural resources, Khamis Kagasheki, to the Tanzanian ambassador to the US, and accused WWS of “dirty tricks,” “instigat[ing] villagers to protest,” being “stubborn and arrogant,” and even sabotaging an airstrip. Kagasheki calls allegations of corruption “unjust,” perhaps because of bad memories—he was also investigated for receiving a $270,000 bribe while working as  a UN official.

The court cases filed over these charges still have not been resolved, but the timely leak of the safari snuff video led to public anger at Green Mile in Tanzania, and the ministry suspended its hunting privileges in 2014.

In the summer of 2015, the Friedkins won an important ruling: They convinced the Tanzanian government to grant them “Strategic Investor Status,” which would guarantee their leases for the next 30 years in exchange for an additional $100 million investment. It seemed like the company would hang on to its concession—until that May 2016 eviction notice.

Change of fortunes

By 2016, the year Gower’s helicopter was brought down, the staff at WWS thought that they had secured their lease through the strategic investment deal. And it appeared Green Mile’s transgressions would prevent that outfit from doing business again. Then, the eviction notice arrived.

Employees of Green Mile moved in and set up a 50-tent camp within shouting distance of WWS’s huts. The only thing that keeps the WWS team in the area are their separate agreements with the local Masai peoples; the central government wants WWS off that block.

Indeed, during a parliamentary debate on the topic—the issue made the front pages in Dar-es-Salaam—one defender of Green Mile confessed to having a financial interest in the company. But Milanzi, the ministry official, says that no government officials have a business interest in Green Mile. He says that the return of the company to operations after its ban reflects due process.

AP Photo/Jason Straziuso
Members of an anti-poaching squad find an elephant skull in Arusha, Tanzania.

“The minister has the mandate to give the company the block, he cannot take it out from the company unless there is a court conviction,” he says. This year, the minister felt that since there was no court conviction connected to Green Mile’s abuses, they could not lose their block. Milanzi says that the responsibility to enforce hunting rules isn’t on the company but on the guides and government rangers who accompany the safari.

“The video was reviewed, and those who committed the offense, the officials were identified, and these are the ones that now supposed to be taken to court,” Milanzi says, though he is not sure of the status of the investigation.

Kishashu claims that the hunting guide is still operating in the area, though he disclaims any possibility of responsibility by Green Mile or plans to change its operating procedure.

“The company is not in any way responsible for anything happening during the hunting because the hunting is, by law, guided by a professional hunter and game scout,” he says. “They are hired, but just like when you buy a bus and hire a driver to buy your bus, the driving is regulated by laws of the land.”

As for the protection that the strategic investment agreement supposedly provides to the Friedkin Conservation Fund’s Tanzanian investments, Milanzi says it is still in effect—but since the government doesn’t recognize the switch of the blocks, it doesn’t apply here.

“I don’t believe that there is any corruption there,” Milanzi says. ”What I want to stress is here is the allocation of blocks is done in a very transparent way where an advisory committee advises the minister, and it’s not made by one person. So it’s not a one person job, and I don’t think one can bribe everyone.”

Kishashu echoed Milazni nearly word-for-word.

“I don’t know why people say Green Mile has influenced government officials,” he said in a phone call. ”It is not possible, my friend. The only thing you can do is to bribe government officials, in this case, I don’t think you can bribe all the committee members.”

An anti-corruption administration?

Reuters/Emmanuel Herman
Former Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete laughs with his successor, John Magfuli, in 2015.

The major change in the central government since granting the 2015 protection was the election of John Magufuli, supposedly representing an anti-corruption faction within the ruling CCM party. The party has led the country since independence and dominates Tanzanian political and business life.

Magufuli has taken symbolic action against graft already, firing minor officials who failed to collect taxes and duties, while cutting spending on the presidential lifestyle. His personal frugality inspired a popular Twitter meme, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo. But now his regime is jailing people who insult him on social media, and opposition members and journalists say that he has yet to take on the entrenched interests within the party.

“Magufuli is not a revolutionary, he is a disciplinarian who plays within the rules,” Erick Mwakibete, a Tanzanian journalist, says. “While he has fast-tracked changing public procurement law, he has shown no interest whatsoever to give autonomy to corruption fighting bodies like the judiciary [or] the police,” and he has cut funding to independent government auditors.

While the battle over hunting concessions is comparably small—although that $100 million in foreign investment from the Friedkins is at risk—it is symbolic of growing fears about the regime. Tanzania has made recent gains in attracting foreign investment, reaching a high-water mark of just over $2 billion in 2014. Now, though, Magufuli has the Economist fulminating that his zeal to root abuses of power is being eclipsed by his rough treatment of foreign companies, including the government’s siphoning of money owed straight from company bank accounts.

In response, the Tanzania Investment Center says that “investments have increased during President Magufuli’s era which shows high investor confidence.”

“The real power brokers in the CCM are giving him a little leeway at the moment, but it’s not clear that he’s actually in charge of the real show,” says David Throup, a former British diplomat who has studied African politics for 30 years.

Waiting game

Political concerns are eclipsing commercial disputes at the moment. The 2015 election that brought Magufuli to power also saw an irregular election in Zanzibar, the archipelago that is half of the Tanzanian Union. The complicated ethnic and party politics there have led to frequent flare-ups, and currently there is a dispute between the CCM-incumbent president and the opposition party, which maintains it would have won cancelled elections there last fall and boycotted a re-vote held in March.

The unresolved dispute led the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government aid organization, to pull $470 million in aid from the country. In the last several weeks, the Tanzanian government has cracked down on opposition, ejecting seven members from parliament, banning public assembly and ending the broadcast of parliamentary debate. The US State Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the political situation in Tanzania.

“Slowly the country is heading towards a One Man Show and all others ‘Presidents Men,'” Kabwe, the opposition politician, wrote to Quartz. “It is a worrying trend being observed in his first 100 days and it must be stopped.”

Meanwhile, the concession at Lake Natron remains in limbo, with both safari groups using the property in awkward coexistence. WWS is waiting for its appeals to Tanzania’s courts or lawmakers to have any affect, but it remains to be seen whether they will have any impact or if the government will act to forcibly evict WWS.

“The biggest concern is that this whole thirty years of conservation effort and all this money is going to be lost on one stupid little disagreement over one area, it’s just not worth it,” says one conservationist who fears the Friedkins may pull up stakes if their concession is taken away from them.

AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy
A giraffe grazes in nearby Serengeti National Park, where anti-poaching efforts are at a premium.

Locally, it is difficult speak out about CCM. Many people Quartz approached for this story declined to speak to us because they feared government or party reprisals.

“Tanzania is a sovereign nation, so it is up to Tanzanians to take charge of their situation,” Kabwe says. “But the USA can make it very clear that if Tanzanian government will not work on this and end this corruption and stop this company then it will be hard to convince Americans to visit Tanzania and even FDI to flow into this country.”

Outside observers aren’t so confident that foreign governments will take a stand.

“Magufuli hopes that the EU and the US will more or less forget about it, and providing Zanzibar doesn’t erupt into large scale violence, that things will rub along and everybody will forget about Zanzibar until 2020,” Throup says. “It’s what happened in 1995, 2000, and 2005, and he may be right.”

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