The Fight to Stop Elephant Poaching in Tanzania

Of General Concern | Grace Zipperer | February 23, 2016

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A significant advance in the fight to stop elephant poaching in Tanzania has now been finalized.

The Tanzanian minister of natural resources and tourism, Professor Jumanne Maghembe, stated that a new Wildlife Crime Unit will work in collaboration with the Tanzanian government, security agencies, and local and international conservation organizations with the hopes to “eliminate the entire syndicate of poaching in (the) country” (Busiweek).

Jumanne Maghembe (U.S. Department of Agriculture CC BY 2.0)

Tanzania was once home to the largest pachyderm (elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamuses) population in the world, but has lost two thirds of its elephant population in just four years (Telegraph). With the ongoing demand of ivory from China and the loopholes in the illegal poaching framework, poaching in Tanzania has not only continued but is becoming more and more devastating.

Scientists and conservationists had been under the assumption that illegal poaching was causing more harm to the elephant population in Tanzania than what was being estimated.

However, it wasn’t until aerial surveys conducted by Howard Frederick and his team in 2013 that anyone had any idea how catastrophic the results were. Flying over Selous, Tanzania’s biggest game reserve, Frederick says that he “had never seen anything like that — there were carcasses everywhere, whole family groups on their sides, between three and seven animals, wiped out” (Telegraph). They had to recount their numbers serval times before making a conclusion because they just couldn’t believe what they were finding.

Selous Game Reserve (Rob CC BY-ND 2.0)

In 1976, right at the beginning of severe elephant poaching, Selous had 109,000 elephants. By 2013 that number had dropped to 13,084 — a 78 percent decrease. Park ranger David Guthrie remembers that back in 2010, it was a rarity to even see an elephant carcass. Since then the numbers rapidly increased and now if you see an elephant, it is most likely dead, because the ones living are often in hiding (Telegraph).

So what has caused the sudden surge of illegal poaching in Tanzania?

A more concentrated and heavily organized illegal poaching operation, based in Tanzania’s capital Dares Salaam, had moved to Selous around 2010. They didn’t notice that the numbers were as significant as they were because of the difficulties of the Selous landscape and how poachers operate. The Selous game reserve is massive, bigger than Switzerland, and there is no way for park rangers alone to oversee the entirety of the land. Poachers had the ability to set up in prime locations and at times even move into ranger posts (Telegraph).

“I had never seen anything like that – there were carcasses everywhere, whole family groups on their sides, between three and seven animals, wiped out.” — Howard Frederick

Poachers tend to work in five stages: scout teams, followed by kill teams, followed by butchering teams who cut out all of the tusks, and then followed by transport teams that see to reaching the teams who ship the tusks off to the ivory collectors.

Elephant in Tanzania (Rebecca Hardgrave CC BY 2.0)

These aren’t random hunters who decide they want to make some extra money by shooting elephants and have no further connections than to the people they deliver the tusks to. These are highly organized workers who are heavily armed with sophisticated military weaponry (Guardian).

Trying to catch these poachers often comes at a high price.

Just weeks before the announcement of the Wildlife Crime Unit, British pilot, Roger Gower, was shot and killed on a tracking mission, which received international outrage (Guardian). This was the first time poachers had killed someone in a helicopter in Tanzania, although there is a constant threat to park rangers who often don’t have the resources and weaponry to match that of the poachers.

But Selous was only one stop.

The poachers had hit a flat line in Selous back in 2013 because elephants were becoming harder to find. So they moved onto Tanzania’s second biggest game reserve, Ruaha, which is just west of Selous. The damage they made in Ruaha was even harder to swallow. In just one year, from 2013-2014 the elephant population went from 20,500 to 8,200. That was a 60% loss in total and an average loss of 1,000 elephants a month (Telegraph). The elephants in these reserves were dying at four times their natural death rate.

Ruaha River (Egui_ CC BY-NC 2.0)

However, killing wasn’t the only effect the poachers have had on the elephants. Elephants are very intelligent and emotional creatures (Scientific American). In response to poaching, the elephants have actually become more nocturnal and now hide from any human, poacher, and park worker alike, which is a complete change of behavior (Telegraph). Many tourists who have gone to Selous and Ruaha recently have been very disappointed to find that they have spent all of their money to see these majestic creatures, only to discover there are none left.

The physical appearances of the remaining elephants are also not representative of regular African Bull elephants.

The bigger elephants, whose tusks can weigh up to 160 pounds and be as long as 12 feet (which make for huge profits), are mostly gone so only the smaller ones are alive today (Bagheera). Elephants are keystone species, which means their ecosystems highly depend upon them. Other species, as well as humans, require them to “pull down trees, break up bushes, create salt licks, dig waterholes, and forge trails” (Bagheera). Without keystone species, their ecosystems start to deteriorate.

African Elephant (Martin Heigan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fredrick remarked after surveying Selous that “there was this incredible sense of life missing from that landscape that’s so defined by these creatures. It’s just hollow.” (Telegraph). There is potential for elephants to be wiped out in a single generation if serious action doesn’t take place (Save the Elephants).

Tanzania actually led the way on the ivory ban back in the 1980s; however, since then the Tanzanian government has been highly criticized for having a lackluster response to its elephant crisis (Telegraph).

Many times the government has made attempts to highlight smaller achievements and hide huge failures.

This includes how the minister of tourism has stated that the number of elephants in Selous has risen recently because of anti-poaching actions. However, scientists mostly agree that if it has risen at all, it is because the elephant population has hit a threshold where they simply can’t decline in great numbers anymore because their change in behavior (Telegraph). Also in both 2009 and 2014, the government initially failed to recognize the severe decrease in elephants as well as cover up their own calculations (EIA).

In order to prevent reports from being released before they are endorsed by the National Bureau of Statistics, a bill was signed into law by the previous President, Jakaya Kikwete, which prevents such actions and sets the standard of at least one year of prison time if convicted (EIA).

President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania (UK Department for International Development CC BY-SA 2.0)

Overall, there has been an unwillingness for the government to cut its own corruption ties with the illegal ivory trade. One of the most embarrassing examples was when President Kikwete announced a military operation to end poaching. However, it was stopped after just one month, with the excuse that somehow the operation violated human rights and the minister of tourism was fired for “botching the operation” (Telegraph). In reality, insiders have confessed that the minister of tourism gave a list of corrupted officials to the president and “the operation was getting too close to political masters and disrupting their lucrative operations” (Telegraph).

There is hope that the government can start to change its ways.

The prominent Chinese businesswoman, Yang Feng Glan, known notoriously as the “ivory-queen” was arrested in October of 2015 and was charged “with heading a criminal network responsible for smuggling 706 pieces of ivory worth 5.44 billion Tanzanian shillings ($2.51 million) between 2000 and 2014” (Yahoo). She has yet to be convicted, but her arrest was a huge step in the right direction.

Also with such international outcry and with help from the Friedkin Conservation Fund Anti-Poaching team, the Tanzanian police were able to arrest five persons from the Gower case, with one expected to be the murderer. The Friedkin Conservation Fund issued a statement after the arrests, stating, “This extensive operation has also uncovered a wider network of suspects involved in poaching and the illegal ivory trade, which is expected to lead to further arrests” (Friedkin).

Probably the biggest hope resides with the election in last October of the new president. President John Magufuli has a clean and corruption-free record, which is surprising since as a minister of works he “supervis(ed) the execution of mega projects worth trillions of shillings” (BBC). Dr. Alfred Kikoti, Tanzania’s foremost elephant expert, has said that Magufuli “must fight for our wildlife, and has promised he will” (Telegraph).

The new Wildlife Crime Fighting Unit finalization most likely has something to do with the change in presidents. However, just arresting poachers isn’t going to be enough. In order to actually stop poaching of elephants in Tanzania, the government needs to stop corruption within itself. Whether or not Magufuli has that ability along with other government officials is yet to be known.

But there are things that you can do in the meantime to help reverse the endangerment of elephants!

You might be thinking, “I am a broke ass college student who lives a whole ocean away. I cannot change the corruption within governments who deal with the illegal ivory trade. There really isn’t anything I can do.” (annoying sound buzzer goes off) WRONG! As a college student you have the power of numbers. Whether you live on a floor with a lot of people, are in some rad organizations, play a sport on a team, or just generally know a lot of people from being on campus all the time, you can easily form a group to make a difference for very little cost to each of you individually! Here’s how:

  • Adopt a baby elephant for a year for only $50! I don’t have to tell your smart college self that that is only $5 a person if you have a group of ten. Baby elephants are abandoned when their parents are killed by poachers. By adopting one for a year, your group would receive monthly information about their livelihood and some darn cute photos! Go and check out baby elephant profiles here.
  • Adopt an elephant for prices between $20-95 to help make sure that international trade laws are enforced to eliminate poaching. Different prices come with different very cool elephant memorabilia! Look it up here.
  • As college students, you are probably very fashionable or at least have started to realize wearing T-shirts and jeans every day is getting kind of old. Why not try incorporating elephant pants into your wardrobe? I speak from personal experience that these Harlem style pants are perfect for every bohemian look and are very comfy as well! $2 of every pants automatically goes the African Wildlife Foundation and you a donate addition funds with your purchase as well! Not big into Harlem pants? They also have backpacks, beautiful tapestries for your dorm, leggings, shirts, and so much more! Check out your next favorite online store here.

ANYTHING you can do will help.


Featured Image: Tanzanian elephants (Glen Darrud CC BY-NC 2.0)