In recent years, Tanzania has witnessed a steep rise in poaching and other forms of crime targeting elephants and other wild animal species. The rate of killings is significantly greater than the elephants’ capacity to reproduce.
This has led many wildlife experts to declare the situation as a crisis, worse than the mass slaughter in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to the global ivory trade ban by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989.
Currently, the selling of ivory is done only with the approval of CITES; moreover, raw ivory sales are expected to resume after the expiry of a nine year moratorium in 2017. The CITES approved ivory auction which was held in 2008, saw ivory selling at least US$1,700 per kg.
Government authorities and various international and local non-government organisations (NGOs) are working together to campaign against poaching in an effort to eliminate the ugly menace but they have failed as the killings are increasing rapidly.
Motivated by the ups and downs of the anti-poaching campaign, this paper assigned its IJ desk to investigate the matter and find out where the missing link is.
Selous Game Reserve, is about 395 km South-east of Dar es Salaam and covers a total area of 54,600 km (21,100 sq miles). It is about 6 percent of the country’s surface area and is bigger than Switzerland or Denmark.
The reserve is the worst hit in terms of elephant killings. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica, the term Selous, pronounced Se-l-oou without including the letter "s" as suffix, was named after an Englishman Sir Frederick Selous, a famous big game hunter and early conservationist, who died at Beho Beho in 1917 while fighting against the Germans during World War I.
Media reports say that the game reserve is Africa’s oldest (as its origin dates back to colonial era of the 1896) and is one of the largest protected wildlife reserves in the world. It is home to the largest elephant population on earth (more than half of Tanzania’s elephant population). It also has many other species.
Despite the fact that the area is protected, poaching and human-wildlife conflict continue to be a major problem hence the sudden rise in the killings of elephants. Selous has lost more than 80 percent its elephants to poaching in the last eight years.
A study carried out by the country’s wildlife authorities with support from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, indicated that in 2008, the game reserve was estimated to have between 65,000 and 70,000 elephants. This is now down to only 13,084 elephants. In the early 1970s, it had more than 100,000 elephants.
The findings of the Frankfurt Zoological Society are astonishing as the wave of massacring the elephants is escalating in the country. Poachers are killing an estimated 30 elephants a day. That translates to 850 elephants a month or 10200 elephant a year. More elephants are killed in less than the time it takes you to read this report.
Worried by this trend, President Jakaya Kikwete was at one time quoted as saying “… poaching of elephants in the country is upsetting and no stone would be left unturned in the search for poachers…we will capture them wherever they are hiding.”
Following the President’ directive, the former minister responsible for natural resource and tourism Ambassador Khamis Kagasheki in October last year, proposed radical ‘shoot-to-kill policy’ to curb the mass killing of elephants for illicit ivory trade which had been dubbed white gold.
The ‘Kagasheki’s policy’ looks as if it bore fruits as Shamsi Vuai Nahodha; former Minister for Defence and National Service, said in the first week after the famous ‘Operation Tokomeza which literally means ‘terminate’ was prematurely suspended.
The operation only lasted for 28 days (October 4th to November 1st 2014). By that time at least 952 suspected poachers had already been arrested, though he could not name them. During the period 104 pieces of ivory were seized, he said.
In addition, the operation was intended at developing the ecology of reserved areas, reserving scientific and academic opportunities of flora and fauna and urging residents in various areas to help the government prevent wanton killings of big game, especially elephants.
It was suspended following a report by a Parliamentary Standing Committee which probed the allegations of human rights abuse and barbaric actions on the part of its implementers.
The report gave gruesome and hair raising details of how men and women were tortured and administered with humiliating and painful punishment leading to permanent disability or death. In fact the report says a number of villagers were killed, their livestock shot to death in front of the owners who were forced to part with huge sums of money to the perpetrators of these monstrous acts.
Speaking to this paper recently; Paschal Shelutete, the Public Relations manager for Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa) seemed to be put off after the an anti-poaching campaign (Operation Tokomeza) was suspended by the National Assembly as MPs complained about human rights violations in the course of the operation.
Shelutete explained his grievance to this paper, saying: “It is hard to accomplish our mission if we politicise everything. The operation was successful but the MPs were complaining, so what should we do! A military operation is not expected to please everyone. I assure you that poachers are now happy as there is no one to disturb them since Tokomeza was suspended.”
He added: “For them (poachers) business is booming as demand for ivory has increased especially in China. They make good money. In fact one can make US$300 for a tusk, middlemen sell to businessmen in town for about US$1000 to US$1400 a tusk. This is done in a country where the per capita income is about US$125 a month…so what do you expect? As incomes rise, so does the demand for ivory.”
Local sources indicate that the current price for ivory in China ranges from US$1000 to US$7000 per kilogram, depending on the quality. Selous ivory is considered the best; making the gross value of Selous’ elephants worth billions and thus attracting illegal businesses, organised crime networks, corrupt officials, terrorist groups and others to risk poaching.
“Many people are getting involved in the illegal hunting of elephants, and for sure, though we don’t have proof we suspect that some government officials are part of the network. This is due to the fact that most of the time when a poacher is caught, he is killed,” said Osward Mujungu a Sanje ward resident, in Kilombero district, Morogoro region.
For Mujungu shooting suspects bothers him. He thinks there is a hidden agenda. He asks: “But why kill them? I think when you catch a criminal; you need to interrogate him or her so as to get more information regarding the mater which may lead to arresting those behind the crime.
Killing the suspect is simply destroying the evidence … but for us the killing of elephants is good news as we have been struggling to keep the animals (elephants) away from our crops.”
He added: “The game wardens are not friendly to us as they have been torturing us especially when they find a person tilling the land which is in close proximity to the reserve. The torture is humiliating and this is the reason why we don’t collaborate with them when the elephants invade our community. We normally kill them and after we are done then we call the rangers to come and collect the carcass.”
Said Athuman, a traditional hunter and resident in the same area told our reporter: “During the Operation Tokomeza, many innocent people and some poachers were detained and tortured; some were even killed yet the perpetrators were, and they still are, rejoicing, as none of them was caught and tortured.”
According to him, it was not fair to have ‘insignificant’ (small fish) people in the network being arrested yet their bosses were left untouched. Ashe understands, in any poaching operation, you have one person who shoots, and another who cuts and carries the horns, a middleman who carries the order and the financier (the one gives orders). So it is a network and the leadership is protecting them.
Athuman admitted that in order for a person to be convinced to carry out the orders, he will need to know the amount that he will be paid and should also have some assurance for his safety.
Referring to one incident, Athuman said: “One day I met a person who was introduced to me as a businessman from Dar es Salaam. He said that he was looking for a committed person who would be collecting paddy for him from farmers.
The businessman assured me that he had a contract to supply rice to different schools and colleges…he kept visiting me and at the end of the day, he introduced me to his friend also from Dar es Salaam who promised to give me millions if I found him elephant tusks. I was tempted to accept the offer but at the same time I was scared of being caught.
After all I didn’t trust them as I wasn’t sure whether they were real businessmen or not. I think they were policemen in plainclothes...anyway, I rejected their proposal, since then I have never seen them.”
Athuman thinks that the driving force behind the escalation in poaching is the demand for ivory in China as the price per kilo of ivory has gone up giving poachers and others an opportunity to make good money.
Stopping the current tide of elephant poaching will be difficult. Athuman therefore suggests that the first thing in defending as well as protecting elephants is the availability of well-trained and equipped wardens whose work is valued and well rewarded.
“In most, if not all, of our parks and game reserves, there are insufficient numbers of rangers as often you find them poorly equipped. They are not paid well, yet they guard valuable resources. I am sure the situation makes them susceptible to corruption,” he said.
Mohamed Mgagana a resident of Kanyenja village in Mang’ula ward, Kilombero district, Morogoro region said that it is not easy for a person who does not know the behaviour of elephants as well as their habitat to get into the illegal killing of the animals.
Mgagana therefore believes that poachers work in collaboration with disloyal employees of the game reserve as they are the ones who know the routes that elephants use, as well as the water points.
“Animals tend to be in a specific area for either water or food; they will use the same route, the same water points, and often at a specific time,” he added.
A father of five, Mgagana is convinced that it is hard to fight poaching as long as those mandated to protect the animals, work in partnership with the killers. “…in fact we have been hearing that a poacher has been killed after being found cutting the tusks, but I keep asking myself but why…why kill him? However, I came to realise that they are being killed to protect the network.”
While Mgagana’s reason for the killing of suspects corresponds with that of Mujungu…Frednand Ndali, the Chairperson for Ikwambi village in Kilombero district; told this paper that the only solution to poaching is for the game reserve authorities to involve residents bordering the game in their plan of protecting the animals.
“If the authorities keep seeing our people as enemies or intruders and harass them, the community will not cooperate. In fact they will not join the anti-poaching campaign; and as a result, the government will not succeed in its campaign,” said Ndali.
The chairperson said he is not just backing his people, he wants those who are engaged in poaching to face legal action but the innocent ones shouldn’t be harassed. “Most of my people are farmers, so when they are harassed, it is not easy for them to conduct their farming activities, and as you know; they totally depend on agriculture so if you fail them in what they depend on, I will not support you because you are simply trying to kill them.”
Backing his chairperson; a villager Moshi Zinga said: “Because of the harassment, we sometime fail to till the land and if we do it might be late in the season so as a result we harvest little or sometimes we harvest nothing.”
She added: “Life isn’t easy at all. We are so scared and we wish we had another place to go and live. We are being told Tanzania is an island of peace. Show me the peace! Look at that young man; does he look like a poacher? He was beaten severely but surprisingly they just let him go without taking him to the police.”
In an irritated voice; Zinga said she wished all the elephants could just die so that the people may live in peace and harmony.
“The elephants are now more important than we the people. Since I was born, I haven’t seen any economic benefit from the elephants in our village. , We are the ones who pay everything for our development. The animals are there but they don’t pay taxes, they don’t farm yet they are more important than us. Surely, I wish them all dead,” said Zinga.
Zinga asks: “If we are missing the link as far as anti-poaching campaign is concerned, will the government succeed?”
“They (game wardens) have stolen our money; our livestock have been cheaply auctioned. We have been left with nothing; in fact we have become poorer than before. Most of us have never ever seen the elephant with our naked eyes yet we are being accused of being poachers,” she added
Zinga is convinced that Operation Tokomeza did not deal with the real poachers as it was meant to be. She thinks those in the operation were just arresting the innocent, leaving out the real ‘criminals.’
According to her, the ‘askari’ were getting to the villages that are very far away from the game reserve and others were just patrolling during the night and if they happened to find a person at night, they would ask for money and if the person had nothing, then the person was tortured.
Zinga’s story is corroborated by Zuberi Kabindijega who works as the chairperson for Namawala Village in Kilombero district, Morogoro region.
Kabindijega told our reporter that he went to visit his son, Juma Mola, who resides in Mbuga Village, in Mahenge-Morogoro. He stayed there for a day, then the next morning he decided to visit a relative in the same area; but when he was going back to his son’s home, he encountered the ‘askari’ at Luhumbero Bridge. These were combined forces of soldiers from Tanzania Peoples Defense Force (TPDF), Police Force and the wardens.
He said the ‘askari’ ordered him to sit down and identify himself, after he had identified himself, he was questioned where was he from as well as where was he heading. He replied politely that he had gone to visit a relative and he was heading back to his son’s place. This explanation did not seem to satisfy the askari.
“They kept asking more questions and I responded; they asked me why I went to see my son when I knew there was Operation Tokomeza which did not allow movement of people! I replied that I wasn’t aware of such restrictions …they finally asked me how much I had, they forced me to give them all the money…it was 100,000/- and they ordered me to tell no one that they had camped at the bridge,” Kabindijega said.
He added: “If they were really looking for poachers as well as protecting the wild beasts, why were they stationed at the bridge waiting for innocent people to come and steal their money? I am hundred percent sure that if such acts continue, then we should expect more killings of elephants.”
Up to now, the President’s declaration to capture the perpetrators behind the massacring of elephants and Kagasheki’s proposed radical ‘shoot-to-kill policy’ have not provided the lasting solution on the matter.
This is why curbing ivory poaching requires major changes especially in political will. The existing wildlife laws must also be enforced and perpetrators punished accordingly and not protected if poaching is to be perceived as a serious crime.
Apart from being the largest remaining terrestrial mammals on earth, elephants have been playing an important and pivotal ecological role in savanna and forest ecosystems helping to maintain suitable habitats for a myriad of other species. Therefore, something needs to be done to rescue the remaining elephant populations.
According to the Tanzania Elephant Management Plan 2010-2015 published by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (Tawiri), the country is again facing rising law enforcement challenges as ivory poaching is increasing, driven by a resurgent demand for ivory in Asia.
The document which is 104 pages, says that Tanzania has to strive to become a world leader in elephant conservation by ensuring that elephant populations and their habitats are secured and conserved in harmony with people for the benefit of present and future generations.
Part of the document reads: “Using the best available scientific, technical and indigenous knowledge, Tanzania will conserve her elephant population and the ecological integrity of elephant habitats, through; maintaining current protected areas and securing viable corridors and dispersal areas, reducing human-elephant conflict (HEC) using land use planning and appropriate mitigation methods, enhancing law enforcement, governance and accountability, promoting appropriate research, monitoring and information management, ensuring sustainable use, stakeholder involvement and equitable benefit sharing.”
• This is a two-part investigative story by our reporters analysing the campaign to save elephants, after suspension of Operation Tokomeza, following claims of abuse by the implementers.