Signs are Selous is bouncing back to its former glory but…

14Nov 2016
Lucas Liganga
The Guardian
Signs are Selous is bouncing back to its former glory but…

STANDING under the shade of a tree to protect herself from an afternoon scorching sun, a female game ranger with eight years on the job says poaching in the Selous Game Reserve (SGR) has relatively gone down - thanks to a fresh anti-poaching drive pioneered by President John Pombe Magufuli.

“Since President Magufuli declared war on poachers when he came to power we have never heard gunshots from poachers,” says the game ranger at SGR’s headquarters at Matambwe in the northern part of the 50,000 square kilometre reserve, the largest protected area in Africa and relatively undisturbed by human impact, at least until now.

“Nowadays we only see wire snares for buffalo, wildebeest and giraffe,” says the female ranger who prefers to remain anonymous because she is not the spokesperson for the game reserve, adding: “I was on patrol last week and saw herds of buffalo, elephants and giraffe walking peacefully with confidence.”

She says before the poaching situation had calmed down, animals, especially elephants that are the most hunted remained hidden in heavy forests which were not easily accessible to protect themselves from the poachers.

“Animals have senses like human beings and they are very defensive when they feel they are being hunted,” she says.

Another game ranger who also declined to give his name for similar reasons says he only sleeps in bed for 100 nights out of the 365 nights in a year. “I spend the 265 nights patrolling in the game reserve, sleeping in tents,” says the man who has been on the job for 39 years.

He says President Magufuli’s directive on October 29 to security forces to hunt down poachers and all criminals financing the poaching of elephants was enough motivation to him.

“I was thrilled when I heard the President saying he was behind us. We should arrest all those involved in this illicit trade, no one should be spared regardless of his position, age, religion … or popularity,” the man quotes the President as he wears a broad smile. A smile of appreciation to the head of state.

President Magufuli made the order after he had visited the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism’s ivory room where he saw 50 elephant tusks which were recently seized from poachers.

“This is unacceptable. We cannot allow our natural resources to be lost because of the greed of a few people,” President Magufuli said while examining the seized tusks.

However, the game ranger says the government should improve their working conditions, including providing them with uniforms, tents and modern working facilities.

“You cannot talk of protecting elephants without protecting those who are protecting the animals,” he says adding that the situation in game reserves should be seriously improved like in the national parks where the financial situation is far much better.

“I had once visited Mikumi National Park in Morogoro region where I found modern residences for game rangers. Their residences look like fully furnished homes,” he says.

“In game reserves like the Selous the situation is pathetic… Promotions for game rangers are very rare. There is no salary increase,” laments the game ranger.

Benson Kibonde, former SGR project manager, conquers with the two game rangers on the poaching situation in the Selous which he says has been adequately controlled.

However, he says efforts are needed to be stepped up to sustain this state of calm in the Selous.

“While it is as important to strengthen efforts against trafficking of trophies, more efforts need to be put in protection,” says Kibonde, adding that in its true sense, anti-poaching is the primary part in
combating wildlife crime.

“It is only when anti-poaching becomes dysfunctional that trafficking of trophies becomes prevalent and even more efforts are required to arrest it. The calm situation that is currently reigning in the Selous Game Reserve is a result of serious input in anti-poaching in the area that was stepped up from 2012,” he says.

Kibonde adds: “One hundred per cent wildlife protection will result into zero per cent trafficking but 100 per cent anti-trafficking will never result into 100 per cent protection. And 100 per cent of both
anti-poaching and anti-trafficking is the desired condition for healthy wildlife conservation in any wildlife area particularly in protected areas.”

Kibonde is optimistic that there is hope in sight that the wildlife numbers shall recuperate in the Selous Game Reserve.

He says the current situation and status of wildlife in the Selous was an opportune for pulling together all available management resources to protect this invaluable and priceless treasure trove of natural resources.

“Once the ecological integrity of the Selous Game Reserve shall be lost it shall never be regained or will be regained through excruciating efforts…” says Kibonde, an old hand in wildlife conservation.

Why the elephant?
The elephant is classified as an ecosystem engineer. Along with other browsing mammals and fire, the African elephant plays a crucial role in shaping the structure and functioning of savannah ecosystems.

Prof Jafari Kideghesho of the Department of Wildlife at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro region says in the course of feeding, elephants break, fell and uproot trees and thus reduce the tree density and bush cover of the grasslands, opening up space for other plants that cannot survive in the shade of forests.

“In so doing, they maintain suitable habitats for many other species in savannah and forest ecosystems including browsing and grazing animals,” says Prof Kideghesho.

According to him, about a third of tree species in forests rely on elephants for seed dispersal.

“Poaching, and its impact on this keystone species, therefore has a huge knock on effect throughout the ecosystem,” he says, adding that besides its role as a keystone species and an ecosystem engineer, the elephant is also an umbrella species.

Umbrella species are those with large area requirements. When their habitats or home ranges are sufficiently protected, many other species hosted in these home ranges are also protected.

Essentially, he says, umbrella species are species that are of high priority in conservation, adding that elephant poaching, therefore, has undesirable effects not only on elephants but also on a large number of co-occurring species.

Available statistics indicate that an aerial census conducted in October 2014 established that the elephant population in the Selous stood at 15,086 from 109,416 in 1976.

Rampant poaching in 1970s and 1980s led to decline in population numbers from 55,000 in 1986 to 30,000 in 1989.

An anti-poaching campaign called Operation Uhai that was conducted in 1988/89 helped elephant populations to recover to 67,000 in 1998.

“Initial observations indicate that poaching is now reduced. Counts for 2013 and 2014 seem to indicate that elephant populations have stabilised,” says Asukile Kajuni, WWF TanzaniaCommunity Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) Deputy Coordinator.

Environmental challenges facing the Selous
The Selous Game Reserve is facing a number of challenges, including livestock grazing in the game reserve in recent years, the proposed Stiegler’s Gorge hydroelectric power plant in the northern sector of the reserve, the proposed Kidunda Dam and the Uranium mining project at Mkuju River.

The grazing of livestock in the game reserve and the three proposed projects are exposing the Selous to environmental degradation of the highest degree.

For instance, between January and December 2015 more than 4,000 heads of cattle were seized inside the reserve.

The proposed Stiegler’s Gorge hydroelectric power plant in the northern sector of the reserve along the Rufiji River is also raising environmental concerns.

The government has already nominated a Brazilian company called Odebrecht to develop this project while an international consultant is being sought to cooperate with local consultants to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA).

But environmental experts say this project is likely to have several negative impacts to the universal outstanding value of the Selous Game reserve through interference with ecological processes and increased social interactions, among others.

The Stiegler’s Gorge hydroelectric power plant will lead to 1,100 square kilometres of the reserve to be submerged and subsequently reducing its size. The area to be submerged is larger than the entire of Mauritius.

The experts say this will not only affect habitat for wildlife but it will also destroy species of plants, including medicinal plants. The Selous has more than 2,000 species of plants, including medicinal plants.

The proposed Kidunda Dam at the north-eastern edge of the northern sector of the reserve has also raised another environmental concern because it is likely to interfere with the ecology.

Most of the planned projects are in the northern zone of the Selous will most likely affect photographic tourism.

According to recent statistics, the Selous Game Reserve earned $6 million (about Sh12billion) from tourist attractions, including photographic and hunting in 2015.

“These impressive earnings that could be improved makes the game reserve an industry of its own. By tapping its tourist attractions the game reserve could be turned into one of the leading industries as per President Magufuli’s industrial drive,” say the experts.

The experts say when the Selous Game Reserve was enlisted in the World Heritage Sites List in 1982, nothing like developments of hydroelectric power supply and damming for water supply at Kidunda were foreseen.

Towards its enlisting, the authenticity and universal values of the Selous Game Reserve which were the key criteria for its nomination/enlisting were assessed without these anticipated developments.

“Otherwise, the Selous Game Reserve would have not qualified
to be nominated a World Heritage Site,” says one of the environmental experts privy to the process of enlisting World Heritage Sites.

He says it would have required the government of Tanzania to advance a tone of justifications to enlist the area as a World Heritage Site with the developments in situ.

According to the expert, UNESCO declines the attempt by the government of Tanzania to undertake these projects as they will definitely compromise the authenticity and universal values for which the site was nominated and inscribed in the World Heritage Sites List.

“It is therefore up to the government of Tanzania to convince UNESCO that the developments will be carried in a way that shall not impair the authenticity and universal values of the site. This could be a daunting task to attempt,” he says.

The expert says it would therefore be more sensible that the government seeks for alternative sources of energy and water as there are plenty of these alternatives.

“I would therefore recommend that the government should shelve the
programmes and take on alternative sources such as energy from fossil fuel sources, including gas, geothermal and wind and water from Rufiji or lower parts of Ruvu River and Wami River.

There is plenty of Rufiji River water beyond the Stiegler's Gorge that could be economically drawn as recourse to the domestic and international conservation concerns, says the expert.

Conflicting laws
The expert suggests the need to review wildlife and minerals laws that he says are very conflicting. “These two laws conflict in areas around what is allowed or not allowed in game reserves.”

Section 20 (2) of the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2009 states that “Any person shall not collect sand, prospect or mine on any game reserve...”

At the same time, section 20 (3) of the same Act further notes that “notwithstanding the provision of sub-section (2), a person may prospect or mine in a game reserve if the undertaking involves or is intended for prospecting or mining of oil, gas or uranium.”

The law says these activities should be undertaken provided that environmental impact assessment has been conducted in accordance with the Environmental Management Act, protection cost has been paid by the investor as shall be prescribed in the regulations, concession fee has been paid in accordance with the regulations made by the Minister and the government is the initiator of such undertaking.

Based on the law, says the expert, mining in the game reserves is restricted to oil, gas and uranium, however, it has been observed that the Mining Act of 2010 allows the Minister responsible for mining to issue licences for other minerals in the game reserves beside those listed in the Wildlife Conservation Act.

Based on Part IV of the Mining Act of 2010, the Minister may grant prospecting licenses for various minerals in game reserves and indeed, a survey WWF Tanzania conducted on the Ministry of Energy and Minerals website shows that prospecting licenses for gemstones and other minerals have continued to be issued by the ministry.

“This apparent legal problem needs to be addressed quickly and we understand that a multi agency team has been set up to address this and other issues,” says the expert.

Government reaction
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Major General Gaudence Milanzi, says the government is trying to balance technology and development, adding: “We believe that if proper technology is used the ecosystem cannot be disturbed.”

When it comes to conservation and development, Africa is now speaking with one voice, he says.

Maj. Gen. Milanzi says the question of conservation was deeply addressed at a UNESCO meeting held in Arusha this year which came out with the Ngorongoro Declaration.

On conflicting wildlife and minerals laws, he says the government is trying to harmonise laws on conservation and those on mineral exploration, adding that wildlife laws are more restrictive to conservation.

“We are also trying to redefine poaching. Poaching is a chain of killers of the animals, traffickers and financiers. If we are not careful our animals will be depleted. Anti-poaching in SGR has stabilized but not completely controlled to the extent of relaxing,” says the PS.

Amani Ngusaru, WWF Tanzania Country Director, says President Magufuli has shown political will to fight poaching. “We have to fully support him,” he adds.

There should be benefit sharing of wildlife conservation activities with communities near the Selous Game Reserve in order to motivate them to seriously engage in conservation, and of course anti-poaching.

“Five per cent of Tanzania is still intact. This piece of geography is still intact and it should be maintained,” says Dr Ngusaru.

He also calls for the need to promote eco-tourism infrastructure for the southern circuit.

Prof Hussein Sosovele - WWF Tanzania Programme Coordinator for CBNRM, says the anti-poaching campaign in the Selous Game Reserve aims at attaining zero-poaching by 2018.

“Zero poaching can succeed with community participation. Zero poaching doesn’t mean dispatch of firearms and game rangers alone. It involves community participation,” says Prof Sosovele.

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