DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania's president on Saturday ordered the security forces to go after top criminals financing organized networks behind elephant poaching, saying no one was "untouchable".
The East African nation, home to the famous Serengeti which is packed with wildlife and Africa's highest mountain Kilimanjaro, relies on revenues from tourism and safaris but has been blighted by poachers chasing ivory to sell mostly in Asia.
Since coming to power in 2015, President John Magufuli has promised root out corruption and mismanagement.
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"I am behind you ... arrest all those involved in this illicit trade, no one should be spared regardless of his position, age, religion ... or popularity," Magufuli said in a statement.
"Go after all of them ... so that we protect our elephants from being slaughtered."
Magufuli issued the directive after visiting the Natural Resources and Tourism Ministry in Tanzania's commercial capital Dar es Salaam, where he saw 50 tusks seized from poachers.
"This is unacceptable," he said during an inspection of the haul. "We cannot allow our natural resources to be lost because of the greed of a few people."
Magufuli said he would continue to support the work of Tanzania's National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) to fight elephant poaching.
Poaching has risen in recent years across sub-Saharan Africa, where well-armed criminal gangs have killed elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns that are often shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
In Tanzania, the elephant population shrank from 110,000 in 2009 to around 43,000 in 2014, according to a census last year, with conservationists blaming "industrial-scale" poaching. There are also far fewer rhinos and they are endangered.
The NTSCIU anti-poaching team is comprised of officials from the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service, police, army, immigration, judiciary and the national wildlife service.
The team is credited with the arrest of more than 870 poachers and illegal ivory traders and the seizure of over 300 firearms over the past few years.
In October last year, prosecutors charged prominent Chinese businesswoman Yang Feng Glan, 66, dubbed the "Ivory Queen", with running a network that smuggled tusks from 350 elephants after she was arrested by members of the NTSCIU. She denies this.
Magufuli on Saturday sacked the police director of criminal investigation, Diwani Athumani, without giving a reason. A police source said the president was not satisfied with progress in the fight against crime, including ivory smuggling.
(Reporting by Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala; Editing by Edmund Blair and Alison Williams)