Losing a war on poaching in Tanzania

2014-06-02 07:30
An elephant in the Mikumi National Park, which borders the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania. (Daniel Hayduk, AFP)

An elephant in the Mikumi National Park, which borders the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania. (Daniel Hayduk, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Dar es Salaam - Apollo Kwilabya has loved the outdoors ever since he was a young boy, hunting small animals with his father in Tanzania's southern highlands.

It is also the reason why he signed up as a ranger at Selous Game Reserve, where although he earned a modest $200 a month, he could spend most of his time on patrol in one of the largest wildlife reserves in the world.

But his dream job quickly turned into a nightmare: Kwilabya said he was rarely paid on time, and around him his fellow rangers were killed off one-by-one.

One was killed by a propeller when a hippo overturned a patrol boat, another was bitten by a green mamba, a third was out fishing when he was grabbed by a huge crocodile, and another was trampled by an elephant, while the fifth fell to the deadliest enemy: the poacher.

"I thank God that I'm alive", said Kwilabya, who quit his job after three years and moved to Dar es Salaam to become a tour guide.

"That day we were chasing the poachers, and they would just shoot and run, shoot and run. Everyone was shooting. It's like a war."

This particular poacher was hunting elephant for ivory and, like most, was from one of the small, poor communities that border the park. But Kwilabya said the poachers are clearly well-equipped and funded, brandishing brand-new automatic rifles that put the rangers' firepower to shame.

Boots on the ground

If it is a war, the conservationists are losing. A third of all illegal ivory seized in Asia comes from Tanzania, and the safari tourism destination has lost over half of its elephants in the last five years, according to the Tanzanian Elephant Protection Society (TEPS).

There are 60 000 left but, if poaching continues unabated, Tanzania may see all of its elephants eradicated by the year 2020, TEPS warned during an anti-poaching summit in Dar es Salaam earlier this month.

The problem is particularly pronounced in the Selous Game Reserve, which was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982 when more than 100 000 elephants roamed the area. By 1989 the elephant population had plunged to 30 000.

Benson Kibonde has spent over 30 years protecting the park, and was Selous' Chief Warden from 1992 to 2008. During his tenure, the elephant population more than doubled, climbing back up to 70 000, thanks also in part to an international ban on the sale of ivory.

But something went seriously wrong after Kibonde left Selous to become an instructor at Pasiansi Wildlife Training Institute. Pay checks went unpaid for months at a time, infrastructure fell into disrepair and morale dropped, according to Kwilabya and other rangers. The elephant population also plummeted to just 13 000 animals.

Kibonde was called out of retirement, and has been back in charge of Selous since 2012.

"Based on the poachers we've been arresting recently, I can assure you that they are as local as I used to know in the past,", he said in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania's commercial capital. "So it's still traditional. And I think we can stop them using traditional means."

The technique that Kibonde employed since the 1990s, and the one he plans to continue now, simply involves ensuring that rangers are everywhere. He does this by giving the scouts a map, GPS, rifle, backpack and a small tent, and sending them off on random patrols.

"They visited parts of the reserve that no one had ever gone to before. That's when we realised that we still had rhinos, because they bumped even into rhinos", he said.

"We need to commit boots on the ground, that's the only thing that will save the elephants."

Cutting out corruption

Selous currently has about 285 rangers, but the effective number in the bush at any given time may not be any more than 150, all covering 55 000km2 of wilderness, an area well over twice the size of neighbouring Rwanda.

To add to these numbers, the Tanzanian government recently announced plans to train 1,000 new park rangers and buy four helicopters, with much of the money coming from the Howard Buffet Foundation.

Aside from aid money, which has been rolling in since news of the devastation in Selous became widespread, more money will be raised for the park by making the Tanzania Wildlife Authority (Tawa), the department that oversees game reserves like Selous, independent of government.

Currently, Selous only keeps 50% of the revenue it generates from tourism with the rest going to the government. When Tawa is up and running, which should happen by January 2015, the reserve will reinvest 100% of its revenues into conservation.

The independent authority will also cut down on red tape and having to deal with government bureaucracy, which conservation groups have accused of corruption either by taking bribes or being involved with poaching themselves.

Along with his role as chief warden, Kibonde is also the chairman of the task force overseeing the establishment of Tawa.

"The worst case scenario is the status quo, so it can only be better", he said.

"I'm not so worried. With the 13 000 elephants that we have in Selous, if we commit our hearts and minds seriously, which I'm trying to get in the thinking of the scouts, we will be fine."
Read more on:    unesco  |  tanzania  |  poaching  |  environment  |  conservation  |  animals

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.