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Counting Tanzania’s Vanishing Elephants

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 16, 2013

A wildlife survey might not sound like the stuff of international intrigue, but what’s happening this week in Tanzania fits that description. Scientists, military, government officials, and international observers have descended on the east African nation in an effort that’s being described as a critical step in turning back the tide of elephant poaching.

At 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, three planes take off at the Selous Game Reserve and run precise transects, at 350 feet above the ground and 180 kilometers an hour, to count wildlife of all kinds.  The most closely watched figure will be how many elephants—and how many carcasses—are left on the ground in what has been one of the last great strongholds of the species.

“It’s the most important survey that needs to be done in Africa on elephants,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save The Elephants. He was instrumental in organizing the first pan-African elephant survey, which led to 1989’s worldwide ban on ivory trading, and he lent his expertise to the current effort when it was in the planning stages. “Selous has the second-largest elephant population in Africa, after Botswana—and by far the most threatened. We have data coming in that suggests there’s a real crisis there.”.

What’s dramatic for conservationists is the mere presence of scientists from the international community, monitoring the daily results as closely as if this were a national election.  Representatives from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and other outside groups helped organize the survey together with the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI). Tanzania has never allowed that kind of transparency in its wildlife management until now.

“In the past, there was extraordinary reluctance to even admit that there was a poaching problem,” said Tim Davenport, director of the Tanzania program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is not involved in the survey. “Officials were cautious about having anyone do a true survey of elephants and carcasses,” largely because the government was hoping to win international permission to sell its stash of almost 100 tons of confiscated ivory. That effort failed, in the face of evidence that the legalized ivory trade from some nations in southern Africa has served to launder illegal ivory—much of it traced by DNA sequencing to Tanzania itself.

Now President Jakaya Kikwete appears to have changed course, under intense pressure from foreign governments and worldwide alarm at the imminent disappearance of elephants from the wild in East Africa. “It’s pretty amazing,” said one visitor, in a hasty email early in the week from the survey command center. “The situation is so dire.” For years Kikwete did nothing to stop his country from becoming the bloody source of much of the world’s illicit ivory trade. “And then he was just persuaded to send in the military. And, lo and behold, yesterday a military truck arrived in the Selous. (I’m actually there). Everyone thought they were going to have to hold his feet to the fire … “

Up to now Tanzania has taken a sort of bipolar approach to its wildlife. It has designated a remarkable 28 percent of its land  for wildlife conservation, and it currently has the second largest elephant population in Africa, estimated at 60-70,000 animals. More than 800,000 tourists visit annually, to see both the wildlife and some of the most storied landscapes in the world, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, and the Selous Game Reserve. Tourism is the second largest contributor to the national economy, after agriculture.

And yet poachers now kill about 30 elephants a day there with near impunity. That’s more than 10,000 a year, according to TAWIRI, and at that rate, elephants could disappear from the wild in just seven years. The government response in the past has amounted to a wrist slap. Wildlife officials reported earlier this year that they had taken 670 poaching cases to court over one recent 15-month period, resulting in $109,377 in fines– $123 per case. Meanwhile, elephant ivory sells for about $1000 a pound on the global black market. In a frustrated outburst early this month, Khamis Kagasheki, the minister of natural resources and tourism, declared, “The only way to solve this problem is to execute the killers on the spot.”

Political corruption up to the ministerial level is widely believed to play a role in the poaching. For instance, Tanzania allows trophy hunting of elephants and charges a fee of more than $22,000 for a larger specimen. In theory, that should provide essential funds to protect the herd and to encourage cooperation from nearby communities. But the money often ends up elsewhere. A Tanzanian newspaper reported this week that politicians and wildlife officials sometimes issue trophy permits improperly, or look the other way as legal permits end up in the hands of poachers. China, the end market for much of the blood ivory, is also the leading international investor in Tanzania, with a significant presence of Chinese staff on the ground.

Reached by phone at the Selous, Felix Borner of the Frankfurt Zoological Society said that the survey team has gone to extraordinary lengths to make its elephant count accurate. Preparation included a week working with wildlife observers from TAWIRI and Tanzania National Parks before hand-picking the most accurate among them, followed by an additional three days of training.

Borner had just returned to base from a day’s survey work, having piloted a Cessna 182 over five 60-mile transects. The pilot sees no animals, he said, because he is too focused on keeping the plane at speed and altitude, on a precise GPS track, the standard protocol for surveys. An observer in the front seat and two in the rear do the actual counting, with GPS data and high-resolution photography to confirm every sighting. They speak their sightings into a recording device, because writing them down on paper would mean taking their eyes away from the ground.

Each transect, covers a precise strip width of 160 meters on each side of the plane. A couple of angled “streamers” on the wing struts define the transect boundaries for the observers. Because the angle of the plane on the ground is different from the angle flight, technicians actually put the front wheel of the plane in a ditch to get the streamers positioned correctly.

It’s a long way from past elephant surveys in Tanzania and it will take till the end of this week to complete the work in the Selous. The big question is what President Kikwete and the Tanzania Parliament will do with the results, once they come out around the end of the year. As the visitor to the survey put it, in an email: “Lots of talk about how to manage media once the numbers come out, since they’re expected to be so bad.”

The larger challenge will be how to manage the elephants and stop the poachers before the last of East Africa’s great elephants herds vanishes into memory and dust.

One Response to “Counting Tanzania’s Vanishing Elephants”

  1. […] in October, I reported on how Tanzania had reluctantly agreed to a proper scientific count of the remaining elephant population in the […]

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