15 years of conserving the Serengeti concession

28Jun 2018
Edward Qorro
The Guardian
15 years of conserving the Serengeti concession
  • Gotera Magesa Gamba wasn’t your average poacher during his heydays.

He knew the terrain to well and could easily dodge the traps laid by armed rangers guarding the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

A group of Special Operations Group man the Serengeti concession.

His vast knowledge of the area made him ever elusive to the rangers who would pursue him day and night on their four wheel drive vehicles.

“As a poacher, you had to have some extraordinary instincts that will make not get caught, and that’s how I survived to tell the tale,” he recalls.

Hailing from the Natta community in Serengeti, Gotera and bush meat were indispensable, making him the go-to guy for bush meat hunting and selling.

“I was the village favorite because whenever I descended into the Ikorongo-Grumeti Game Reserve, the village would be rest assured of getting huge chunks of bush meat,” he says.

With each passing day, Gotera became tired of dodging arrest and traps laid on him.

The arrest and persecutions of his colleagues dawned on him, he considered quitting.

“I wasn’t making any good money as a poacher; if anything I was actually putting my life at risk.”

One year on, Gotera has put his past way behind him.

He’s now a reformed poacher, serving as the commander of the Special Operations Group (SOG), an elite task force within the anti-poaching unit responsible for protecting Singita’s 350,000-acre concession in the Serengeti.

For Gotera and his colleagues, this is a job which requires the utmost dedication of the scouts who are highly trained in the tracking and apprehension of poachers, many of whom pose a lethal threat not just to the animals, but to the scouts themselves.

Their local knowledge and, for many, being ex-poachers themselves, makes them extremely efficient at handling the most serious security threats to the concession.

Gotera’s change of mind is attributed to Singita Grumeti Fund’s (SGF) conservation efforts of the concession.

According to Stephen Cunliffe, SGF Executive Director, communities surrounding the game reserve now better understand and recognize that protecting wildlife results in the creation of employment – from game scouts and conservation staff to local farmers producing food for the lodges. 

“At times, the game scouts experience mental hardships when arresting community members from their own villages and with whom they often have relationships. This has to be dealt with sensitively. Another aspect that the Singita Grumeti Fund is currently focusing on ensuring that the judicial system works as it should, so that when poachers are arrested, it does not stop there,” explains the SGF Executive Director. 

To complement the work done by Gotera and his colleagues, the Serengeti Grumeti Fund had last September introduced the canine unit in the concession.

Comprising of four dogs, Radar, Tony , Popo and Dj, the canines were flown from Virginia, a southeastern state in the United State to the Serengeti.

Today, the four canines are busy protecting the wildlife species that are on the verge of extinction inside the Serengeti ecosystem.

All four dogs (two chocolate lab mixes and two Belgian Malanois) were trained by Karin Wagemann from the American Society of Canine Trainers who has also been hired by the Working Dogs for Conservation, in detecting ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, ammunition, bush meat and snares and they currently handled by local dog handlers who were also trained by Wageman.

Since it went operational, the canine unit had resulted to the arrest of more than 100 poachers within the Ikorongo-Grumeti Game Reserve (IGGR) during the 2016/17 period.

The idea of establishing the canine unit came from the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Honey Guide, according to SGF Head of Special Projects, Grant Burden.

Since their arrival, the dogs have been deployed at vehicle checkpoints and at people’s homes as well.

“Dogs have an incredible ability in detecting and tracking, probably 200 more receptors than that of a normal human being,” explains the SGF head of Special Projects.

He describes the canine unit as an extremely specialized program and that for it to become successful; the fund had to get in touch with professionals.

“The dogs went through extremely stringent and rigorous training because the expertise is well established in the US.”

According to Burden, the four dogs are sufficient and efficient in deterring and deflecting poaching within the 1,700 square kilometers which also includes the Ikorongo-Grumeti Game Reserve.

The SGF doesn’t foresee adding any other canine dogs in the program, and that its only focus at the moment was to strengthen collaboration with Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) and the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA).

By assisting in the detection and arrest of poachers trafficking wildlife contraband, Burden hopes the presence of the determined canines will deter potential poachers from picking up their weapons and entering the protected area.  

The presence of the canine unit has tremendously helped in combating elephant poaching for Ivory, a move which has seen the number of jumbos at Singita Grumeti reach 1,500 within the concession.

The fund’s conservation efforts have also had an impact on Buffalo population within the Ikorongo Grumeti Game Reserve (IGGR) registering an increasing from 600 to 6000 in the last 15 years alone.

“The Singita Grumeti Fund has had great success in effectively combatting elephant poaching for ivory. This view is supported by the population figures for elephants at Singita Grumeti, which have increased four-fold since the project’s inception,” Cunliffe says. 

As part of its conservation efforts, last year the Singita Grumeti Fund removed and destroyed close to 2,000 snares from the protected area.

Some of the snares were successfully relocated from the Serengeti ecosystem to a steel centre in Arusha to be sold and melted down.

“We are working hard to expand our anti-poaching impact and efforts beyond the protected area boundary with the admirable goal of reducing poaching throughout the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Programs such as the new canine unit will hopefully help address this issue, especially as we collaborate and work with neighboring conservation areas and government authorities to use the dogs across the entire Serengeti ecosystem,” he adds.

The Singita Grumeti Fund is a non-profit organization carrying out wildlife conservation and community development work in the western corridor of the Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania

Established in 2003 with the sole purpose of restoring the threatened western corridor of the Serengeti – an important migratory route for 1.5 million wildebeest every year, the Singita Grumeti Fund had in 2006 partnered with Singita in order to add global influence to their cause.

Such a partnership had seen part of the Serengeti ecosystem restored and protected as part of a greater effort to preserve the African wilderness for 100 years of future generations.