An elephant tusk. Picture: Getty Images
A Tanzanian minister under fire for a controversial suspended anti-poaching operation has praised police for their seizure of a huge haul of 706 elephant tusks.
"It means 353 elephants were killed to get all those tusks," Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Khamis Kagasheki told AFP, calling the seizure a "quite a big amount".
In the past two months, police and wildlife officers have cracked down on suspected poachers amid a surge of killings of elephant and rhino in the east African nation, in a campaign dubbed "Operation Tokomeza" or "Operation Terminate" which reportedly had a shoot-to-kill policy and allowed sweeping arrests.
But parliament on Friday suspended the campaign to allow investigation of reported seizure of property, torture and killing of suspects.
Kagasheki however defended the campaign, saying the seizure of such large amounts of ivory was a sign of its success.
"I admit that there is an ugly side in the operation, but what is happening now in arresting culprits and impounding tusks is part of the success of the operation," he said, refusing to step down over the conduct of the campaign.
Shortly after the campaign's launch Kagasheki was widely quoted in Tanzanian media as saying that "rangers are allowed to shoot to kill poachers."
Speaker of Parliament Anne Makinda told AFP Saturday the campaign had been suspended "indefinitely" and that a probe into its conduct would be launched this week.
Kagasheki said the ivory was seized on Saturday in Dar es Salaam from the house of three Chinese traders, who reportedly imported garlic from China and exported marine products from Tanzania.
He named the traders as Xu Fujie, Chen Jinzha and Huang Quin.
Kagasheki also praised police officers who reportedly turned down a 30 million Tanzanian shilling (18,750 dollar, 13, 900 euro) bribe to let them go free.
Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years. Besides targeting rhinos, whole herds of elephants have been massacred for their ivory.
Tourism is a key foreign currency earner for Tanzania, especially wildlife safaris to its world-famous parks that include the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater.
The lucrative Asian black market for rhino horn has driven a boom in poaching across Africa.
Asian consumers falsely believe the horns, which have the same composition as fingernails, have powerful healing properties.