The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Poachers Decimate Tanzania’s Elephant Herds

Poachers Decimate Tanzania’s Elephant Herds

Tanzania has been identified as the leading exporter of illegal ivory in recent years. An estimated 10,000 elephants are being slaughtered in the country annually. Here, elephants walk in the Serengeti National Reserve in northern Tanzania in 2010.

EnlargeTony Karumba/AFP/Getty ImagesTanzania has been identified as the leading exporter of illegal ivory in recent years. An estimated 10,000 elephants are being slaughtered in the country annually. Here, elephants walk in the Serengeti National Reserve in northern Tanzania in 2010.

“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.” — Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness

Conrad wrote more than a century ago, when there were no laws against shooting elephants. If anything, today’s restrictions on the ivory trade have only increased its value.

The slaughter of elephants and the seizure of illegal ivory have soared to their highest levels in decades. A voracious market in Asia and chaotic wildlife protection in much of Africa have put elephant herds at risk throughout the African continent, particularly in Central and East Africa. Poachers are gunning down whole families, oblivious to game scouts.

A key battleground is Tanzania, one of the world’s last great repositories of elephants. Perhaps 70,000 to 80,000 elephants roam this nation’s immense sanctuaries, amounting to perhaps a quarter of all African elephants.

In colonial times, the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar held the largest ivory auctions in the world. Today Tanzania has regained that infamy. Those public auctions have been replaced by underground networks of smugglers, but Tanzania remains a leading source of ivory.

From 2009 to 2011, the country was the leading exporter of illegal ivory in the world. Thirty-seven percent of all elephant tusks seized by law enforcement came from Tanzania, with neighboring Kenya a close second.

On Saturday, customs officials in Hong Kong announced the seizure of nearly 4 tons’ worth of ivory hidden in two containers shipped from Indian Ocean ports in Tanzania and Kenya.

Whether the ivory is merely transshipped through Tanzanian ports or plundered from its parks is a point of contention.

Few Protections For Elephants

Conservationists say Tanzania has for years been one of Africa’s worst elephant slaughterhouses. They blame authorities who are unable or unwilling to control poaching and trafficking. The government acknowledges there is a problem and says reforms are under way.

“There’s an enormous slaughter of elephants going on in Tanzania right now. Things are out of hand,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who has been studying and protecting elephants in Africa for 47 years. “There’s no protection in numbers for elephants any more than there was for bison in the last century when they were all wiped out in America. So people shouldn’t kid themselves.”

Wildlife rangers in Tanzania came across this elephant that had been killed for its ivory. Tanzania says it wants to prevent the slaughter of elephants, but rangers are poorly paid and are responsible for monitoring vast game reserves in the East African country.

EnlargeCourtesy of African Wildlife Trust

Wildlife rangers in Tanzania came across this elephant that had been killed for its ivory. Tanzania says it wants to prevent the slaughter of elephants, but rangers are poorly paid and are responsible for monitoring vast game reserves in the East African country.

Tanzania had been curiously mute over the massacre of its elephants. But recently, an avuncular, white-haired member of Parliament offered this grim assessment.

“Thirty elephants per day. At the end of the year, you’re talking about 10,000 elephants killed,” says James Lembeli, chairman of Parliament’s Natural Resources Committee and a former National Parks official. “Move around this country where you have populations of elephants: carcasses everywhere.”

In Search Of Dead Elephants

I decided to go see for myself.

Two Masai tribesmen in tire-tread sandals use elaborate whistling to herd their cattle. They know this landscape of dry thorn brush and tawny grass intimately. So they lead us to a recent elephant kill on the Tanzania-Kenya border.

We walked up on the carcass of a dead elephant. It was killed sometime last month. All that’s left is a great leathery hide, gray on the outside, pink on the inside, decomposing on the savanna.

The poachers hauled off the tusks. The villagers came and cut away all the meat, and took the head and bones. The scene is being repeated again and again across Tanzania.

The poachers come in all types in Africa these days. The Democratic Republic of Congo recently accused Ugandan soldiers of machine-gunning elephants from a military helicopter. Some poachers track jumbo elephants on foot for days like big-game hunters. Others use high-tech shortcuts.

Robert Waltenburg manages Lake Chala Safari Camp, a small, private game reserve where we found the carcass. It’s one of eight elephants killed here in recent weeks.

Social Media Help Poachers

Waltenburg believes his clients unintentionally guide poachers to their targets by posting photos of elephants with big tusks on social media, which are monitored by resourceful poachers.

“It’s so easy to research on the Internet, just type in ‘elephant sightings’ in this region. Things will pop up,” Waltenburg says.

There’s an enormous slaughter of elephants going on in Tanzania right now. Things are out of hand. There’s no protection in numbers for elephants any more than there was for bison in last century when they were all wiped out in America.
– Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a longtime advocate for the protection of elephants

Reliable numbers of killed elephants are hard to come by. According to the MIKE program — Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants — poachers are responsible for 60 to 90 percent of elephant deaths in Tanzanian wildlife reserves. National parks like the Serengeti are better protected.

Like other African countries, Tanzania is losing its elephants to poverty, poor administration and corruption.

First, a pair of big tusks is a year’s income to a subsistence peasant.

Second, wildlife rangers are ill-paid, and punishment for a convicted poacher can be as little as a $13 fine.

Third, individuals inside the Tanzania Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism have been selling out the nation’s heritage that they were supposed to protect.

Wildlife Officials Implicated

In the past few months, the minister and top officials in the Wildlife Department were sacked for their roles in two scandals: taking bribes for the assignments of hunting blocs and allowing 116 live wild animals to be loaded onto a jumbo jet and smuggled out of the country to Qatar.

The new minister, a former diplomat named Khamis Kagasheki, gets high marks from wildlife advocates. In his office in Dar es Salaam, Kagasheki is asked whether people in this building helped the poachers.

“You know,” he says with a deep sigh, “there has been, of course, there’s been corruption.”

His concern is echoed by an outspoken tour operator, Pratick Patel.

“I think a lot more firing needs to be done. We know for a fact, the whole industry knows for a fact, that a lot of the wildlife department are involved, very much involved in poaching in the game reserves,” Patel says. “Unfortunately, the Wildlife Department has, to some extent, been operating like an independent company.”

Kagasheki admires his northern neighbor, Kenya, where anti-poaching laws and the Wildlife Service are much tougher on elephant killers. Kagasheki says he is trying to turn around the culture of the ministry he took over five months ago.

“What I’m saying is we have to be stringent. We have absolutely no choice. These people are killing innocent animals with impunity. And when you look at these elephants, beautiful beasts,” he says.

Conservationists are dubious of Tanzania’s commitment to elephants.

This month, Tanzania notified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that the country would like to sell off its 100-ton stockpile of confiscated ivory and downgrade the protection of elephants.

The government says a one-off ivory sale will raise millions for wildlife protection. Conservationists say ivory sales just fuel the slaughter of more elephants.

In A Tanzanian Village, Elephant Poachers Thrive

Poaching is rife in Tanzania game reserves. This elephant was killed, and its tusks taken, at the Lake Chala Safari Camp, a small, private reserve near Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania.

EnlargeJohn Burnett/NPR

Poaching is rife in Tanzania game reserves. This elephant was killed, and its tusks taken, at the Lake Chala Safari Camp, a small, private reserve near Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania.

An insatiable demand for ivory in Asia is fueling a massive slaughter of elephants across Africa. As NPR’s John Burnett reports, one of the worst poaching hot spots is Tanzania. In this story, he visits an ivory poacher’s town that sits next to a major game reserve. 

It’s midday in Mloka, a cheerless village that is the gateway to one of Africa’s greatest nature sanctuaries, the Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than Switzerland and has vast numbers of giraffes, zebras and hippos in addition to elephants. The sun is stultifying, and the streets are lifeless, but business is booming for the poachers in Mloka.

Two poachers agreed to talk about their illegal work in the courtyard of a low-cost guesthouse in Mloka, where laundry hangs on a line and prostitutes slip in and out of rooms.

A 46-year-old elephant killer who gives his name as Mkanga slouches in a plastic chair.

“Ivory buyers come to Mloka and look for us. They say they want 200 kilograms [440 pounds] of ivory, can you arrange for that? The businessmen are mainly Chinese,” he says.

“After getting a down payment, I look for some boys to hire as porters. We bring flour, sugar, beans and water with us,” he adds. “We cross into the game reserve at night, but after that we can move in the daytime because there is no one there.”

Tracking Elephants To Watering Holes

The second poacher, who gives his name as Salma Abdallah, is 35 and wears a dirty Dallas Cowboys jersey.

“Elephants fear for their lives so it’s not easy to spot them,” he says. “We’ll walk for five days or more. We find them when they go to drink water in the afternoon or go to a forest to feed.”

Abdallah says he goes out with about 10 guys, each with a different role.

“I am the shooter,” he says.

Asian demand for ivory fuels the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. A leading source of ivory is Tanzania, including these tusks confiscated in 2009 in Haiphong, Vietnam.

EnlargeSTR/AFP/Getty Images

Asian demand for ivory fuels the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. A leading source of ivory is Tanzania, including these tusks confiscated in 2009 in Haiphong, Vietnam.

“While we’re out, we’ll shoot an impala or wildebeest for food, dry the leftover meat and bring it back to the village to sell,” he adds.

Both poachers have poisoned elephants with pesticide-spiked pumpkins or other fruit, but they said that method is inefficient.

They use large-caliber hunting rifles. After the kill, they hack off the tusks with an ax. They usually take six to eight elephants per trip.

Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals. They will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones.

Mkanga, the first poacher. is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap, and smirks.

“Sometimes when they have a funeral, it’s like a party for me,” he says. “You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one.”

Big Money In A Poor Place

“Sometimes when I finish my business and I’m back at my house and I’ve gotten paid, I do feel like I’ve done something bad,” he adds. “But when I don’t have money to pay for my children’s school fees or anything to eat, I say, ‘Yeah, the game reserve is my shop. Let me go to the shop and kill.’ ”

Local sources say elephant tusks fetch about $60 a kilo (2.2 pounds). That’s $12,000 for a 200 kilogram (440 pound) consignment of ivory in a country where the per capita income is $125 a month.

Tanzania has been identified as the leading exporter of illegal ivory in recent years. An estimated 10,000 elephants are being slaughtered in the country annually. Here, elephants walk in the Serengeti National Reserve in northern Tanzania in 2010.

Wildlife activists, government officials, safari operators and poachers say the elephant herds of the Selous are being systematically wiped out.

They confirm a 2010 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, in London, which points to the Selous as one of Africa’s worst elephant killing fields. DNA tests conducted on nearly 1,500 tusks seized in 2006 at seaports in Taiwan and Hong Kong traced them to elephants in the Selous and neighboring Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

Tanzania’s natural resources minister, Khamis Kagasheki, was brought in five months ago to clean up his notoriously corrupt agency, strengthen protection for game reserves and crack down on poachers. He says Mloka will be one of his first targets.

“The biggest poaching community is protected by the leadership in Mloka, this I know,” he says. “And believe me, I sent them a message, I’m going to move after them.”

In the first week of October, rangers reportedly shot two poachers inside the reserve. Mloka residents were so furious they temporarily blocked the road and wouldn’t let tourists in or out.

Meanwhile, Mkanga, the poacher, insists he has given up poaching and gone back to farming. He’s asked if he cares whether his four children might not be able to see a wild elephant.

“Yeah, sure,” he says distractedly, “that would be very sad.”

 

STOP THE KILLING! 

VEGETABLE IVORY REPLACES ELEPHANT IVORY: MAKE A CHOICE & MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

VEGETABLE IVORY DESIGNS BY SELVA-VIDA SIN FRONTERAS.

Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras

Selvavidasinfronteras.wordpress.com

Editorial Committee

David Dunham

Arno Ambrosius

Gustavo López Ospina

Mariana Almeida

Pieter Jan Brouwer

Assistant: Emilia Romero

The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice is associated with the International Environmental Mission, a grass roots citizens movement created by Chilean Senator Juan Pablo Letelier.

SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 

~ by FSVSF Admin on 26 October, 2012.

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