State papers: Government gifted jumbo-sized elephant after trip to Tanzania

The gift of a live elephant was presented to the Irish president during a visit to the then Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.
State papers: Government gifted jumbo-sized elephant after trip to Tanzania

Kenneth Fox

Irish diplomats were left with a jumbo-sized problem over 40 years ago after president Patrick Hillery was given a gift of a real elephant while on a visit to Tanzania.

As the Irish Examiner reports, State papers reveal a diplomatic row broke out between Irish and Tanzanian officials over who should pay the costs of shipping the animal back to Ireland.

The incident arose after Mr Hillery travelled to the east African state as part of a goodwill trip to Africa in 1979.

The gift of a live elephant was presented to the Irish president during a visit to the then Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.

Official documents show Tanzanian officials subsequently contacted the Irish embassy in Dar es Salaam in September 1980 to seek repayment of the shipping costs of the elephant.

However, embassy staff were unable to verify that any undertaking had ever been given that the Irish government would foot the bill.

The Tanzanian official sought payment of over Shs66,000 (Tanzanian shilling) — the equivalent of IR£4,005 or €5,085 — as the estimated cost of transporting the elephant to Dublin.

The Department of Foreign Affairs notified the Department of the Taoiseach in October 1980 over the issue with the warning that it did not have the funds to repay the Tanzanians.

While an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs said they were still unable to verify if an undertaking had been given to their Tanzanian counterparts about paying the shipping cost of the elephant, he observed that it “in accordance with normal practice, it would be assumed that the cost of transport of any gifts from the host to the guest country would be the responsibility of the guest”.

An official in the Department of the Taoiseach indicated that it was essentially a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs to sort out from its own budget.

“I had forgotten about the elephant — its transport would seem to be a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs whose vote would seem to be the most appropriate one,” the civil servant observed.

Dublin Zoo’s historian, Catherine De Courcy, confirmed that a three-year-old female elephant that had been presented to Dr Hillery by the president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was donated to the zoo on her arrival in Ireland in May 1980.

The animal, known as Mimi, was subsequently given to Southampton Zoo two years later.

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