Tanzania’s elephants suffer a staggering decline as corruption-driven poaching bites
By Professor Keith Somerville, author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa (Hurst, 2016)
Tanzania has one of the largest savannah elephant populations in Africa with an estimated 42,871 elephants, according to the Great Elephant Census report released in 2016, which is about 12% of the continent’s population. This makes it all the more worrying for the future of elephants that since 2007, Tanzania’s elephant population has suffered a catastrophic decline of 60% in numbers – double the rate of decline of Africa as a whole.
Why such a staggering fall in numbers? The answer is simple and is an indictment of the country’s wildlife authorities, law enforcement system and government – corruption and poverty.
The killing of elephants, harvesting and smuggling of tusks is a complex but flexible network that operates with political protection and impunity from arrest for the king-pins of the criminal syndicates that work with international smuggling rings (that also trade in drugs, guns and people) to export poached ivory. Added to this is the role of Chinese workers, diplomats and businessmen in exploiting the elephants and the opportunities for corruption to feed high demand for ivory in China and elsewhere in East Asia.
Underfunding of conservation, poor pay for wildlife department staff and ubiquitous corruption in the police, public bodies and among the political elite have created an environment in which the illegal ivory trade has thrived. The criminal syndicates have bought political protection by bribing senior politicians and government officials, which has enabled them to commission poaching, supply guns and ammunition to poachers, make “safe” the smuggling of ivory within Tanzania and then work with corrupt port, customs and airport officials to smuggle the ivory out.
One recent Tanzanian Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Khamis Kagasheki, tried to combat this naming by MPs from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party as among those helping poachers and accusing a former party secretary-general and Defence Minister, Abdulrahman Kinana of involvement in poaching and smuggling. Far from being applauded by the then president, Jakaya Kikwete, he was sacked as minister.
Kagasheki’s disclosures and investigative work by the Environmental Investigation Agency revealed a massive spider-web of corruption linking poachers, criminals, smugglers and Chinese gangs, with the latter having gradually taken over the export end of the operation pushing out the existing networks of indigenous smugglers, especially those in the large Tanzanian Asian and Afro-Shirazi business community in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar (for more details of the networks please see below).
The catastrophic decline in elephant numbers in Tanzania has seen numbers fall from about 109,000 in 2009 to just under 43,000 when the census took place there in 2015. Taking into account an annual birth rate of 5%, this means over 85,000 elephants have died – the majority of these were poached. Natural mortality will have made up a couple of per cent of deaths a year, legal trophy hunting a little more and shooting of ‘problem’ elephants a relatively small number.
This shows that in the last ten years, scores of thousands of elephants have been poached for their tusks. The majority have been killed in the Ruaha-Rungwa, Malagarasi-Muyovosi and Selous-Mikumi eco-systems, where two-thirds of the elephants have been killed. A very high rate of killing is also evident in northern Mozambique’s Niassa-Ruvuma area, bordering Tanzania and where Tanzanian gangs operate with little let or hindrance from the Mozambican security forces and Tanzanian border officials.
There were over 34,000 elephants in Ruaha–Rungwa region in 2009; however, this fell to 20,000 in 2013 due to poaching before plummeting further to just 8,000 in 2014. The famed Selous Game Reserve, billed as Africa’s largest game reserve, is actually a shadow of its former self; its once thriving population has fallen from 45,000 to15,00 in the same period and UNESCO had added the reserve to its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list.
(For more details of the networks please see Keith Somerville, ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’, London: Hurst, 2016; and Environmental Investigation Agency, ‘Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants’).
Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. He is also author ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent’ (London, Penguin, 2017).
The second part of Professor Somerville’s examination of poaching in Tanzania will look at the historical background.