(EnviroNews World News) — Over 60 percent of the elephant population in Tanzania has been eradicated by poachers in five short years a new aerial census has shown. Tanzania had long been known as the “elephant capitol of the world” — but those days are now long gone, as a report released by the government on June 1, 2015, drove home the bleak severity of the crisis, announcing an overall decline from 109,051 to 43,330 animals between 2009-2015.
“The results will pile pressure on a government that has been heavily criticized for its inability to stop a flood of poached ivory being stripped from its national parks,” wrote Karl Mathiesen in his article in The Guardian.
The Selous Game Reserve — once the greatest stronghold on Earth for African elephants — has been hit hard by the looters — in a place where the population has plunged from over 45,000 animals in 2009 to under 13,000 today — but, the Ruaha–Rungwa and Malagarasi-Muyovosi ecosystems also lost at least two-thirds of their elephant populations over the same period, making for one of the most tragic wildlife holocausts the world has ever seen.
Reports on the ground suggest Ruaha, the country’s largest national park, may have been dealt the biggest blow of all, suffering an eradication of up to 77 percent of its animals — plummeting from 34,000 to around 8,000 — all that death taking place in the last half-decade. Bafflingly, 60 percent of Ruaha’s population was slaughtered in one short year between 2013-2014 whence the park lost approximately 1,000 elephants a month.
Tourism Minister Lazaro Nyalandu had tried to deny the elephants were even dead, suggesting that it was the “greatest wildlife mystery ever,” and promising to send out search parties to see if the animals had migrated to another country — a notion that environmentalists and wildlife groups call absurd, saying there is no doubt the carcasses of the “missing” creatures were scavenged clean, out in the elements after they succumbed to poachers.
A DNA analysis of major ivory seizures demonstrated that 85 percent of the coveted substance making its way off the continent, emanates from two places: a strip in West Africa, and Tanzania. And Tanzania still took the lion’s share, making it the number one haven for elephant slaughter on the face of the planet.
The recent census has been an international embarrassment for Tanzania, bringing scrutiny from countries and organizations around the world. Still, critics are doubtful anything will be done under the current administration, as recent scandals have revealed that bribed politicians may have been fostering the illegal trade from the inside.
Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, suggested at an international conference on poaching that he would intervene in the crisis with the military, and alluded that they had identified ringleaders and poaching bosses. However, Kikwete’s attempts to quell the elephant genocide have been a blunder at best, and corrupt at worst.
The military operation announced by Mr Kikwete cut poaching cases to almost zero overnight, but was halted after just one month because of alleged human rights abuses. Insiders say the abuses were a convenient cover: the operation was getting too close to political masters and disrupting their lucrative operations.
Not long after, tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki, who made waves by handing the president a secret list of senior politicians involved in poaching, was sacked along with three other ministers blamed for the botched operation. The list was quietly buried.
The revelations by The Telegraph and others, suggest a situation wherein Kikwete has caved to the will of the wildlife gangs, under political and monetary pressures. Some insiders say they see little chance the elephant bloodbath will cease until a new president is elected, leaving those on the ground fighting for the animals with a sinking feeling — a feeling that drops lower and lower like the corresponding number of elephants still left alive and running for their lives.
The Selous Game Reserve is located in the southern part of the country and was once revered as being amongst the largest faunal preserves on Earth. At roughly twice the size of Belgium, this vast stretch of wilderness was supposed to safely harbor large pachyderms like elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippopotami. But all that expansiveness also makes way for poachers to run amok.
Only a few short years back, poaching was a primitive practice in these parts, and was easier to combat, but in recent years, an insatiable Chinese lust for ivory has driven this dastardly black market business to new levels of sophistication.
In February of 2015, China did impose a one year ban on all ivory imports amidst a firestorm of criticism alleging the communist country is responsible for Africa’s bloody elephant debacle. But why only one year? The short moratorium has activists and conservationists alike, upset with the message China is sending. Most advocacy groups call for an all-out and indefinite ban on ivory trading — a commodity upending ecosystems and wreaking utter devastation, for nothing more than luxurious, vain, material fetishes.
In fairness, just last month in June of 2015, China said it was exploring a ban on ivory, but could not “singlehandedly act against the ivory trade and wants more robust action from other countries,” The Associated Press reported. Wildlife activists are now eagerly awaiting a detailed plan from the Chinese government — hoping to get a concrete commitment from the most populated nation on Earth, in what conservationists say could be a “game changer” in the fight against elephant poaching.
Back in 1976 a count was performed on Tanzania’s massive elephant population by renowned expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton. At that time, it was the largest population of pachyderms on the entire planet measuring an in credible 316,000 animals. “For someone who counts elephants, it was like Everest for a mountaineer,” Hamilton told The Telegraph. “It was incredible. An unblemished wilderness teeming with elephants,” the celebrated zoologist continued. Today, that number is closer to 43,000, demonstrating the true extent of the damage over the decades.
Hamilton says elephants are highly sensitive with extraordinarily long memories compared to other animals, and said relentless poaching has made Tanzania’s elephants “much more frightened — they run away from humans, hide in thick bush and become largely nocturnal.” This has made them harder to find — fortunately in the case of poachers, and unfortunately for animal-lovers and safari-goers, who would love nothing more than to adore the creatures — maybe shoot them with a camera — not a firearm.
The Selous itself was home to about 109,000 of those 300,000-plus elephants tallied back in 1976, but at last count, only 13,084 remain in the “reserve.” Not much of a reserve at all, as the definition of the word goes.
Despite the utter devastation, Tanzania is still home to one of the continent’s largest elephant populations, although it no longer boasts the most. That distinction now goes to wildlife-rich Botswana, where estimates come in at around 120,000 head. On the bright side, Botswana’s herds are said to be increasing in numbers rapidly, where numbers are still plummeting in Tanzania and neighboring safari-hotspot Kenya.
The same team that conducted the 2015 aerial count had also surveyed the Selous in 2012 and 2013 and knew that poaching was rampant in the park, “but nothing could have prepared them for what they uncovered [in 2015],” wrote The Telegraph.
Piles of bones and heaps of massive rotting carcasses littered the landscape, reminiscent of strips of giant fallen clearcut trees in an ancient forest, as the terrain, once covered with mighty lumbering herds, lay barren of the ancient four-legged beings.
Howard Frederick, one of the expedition’s leaders told The Telegraph, “I had never seen anything like that – there were carcasses everywhere, whole family groups on their sides, between three and seven animals, wiped out.”
The areal survey squad that studied Selous continued with a saddening tale saying, “There was this incredible sense of life missing from that landscape that’s so defined by these creatures. It’s just hollow.”
“We recalculated about 1,000 times because we didn’t believe what we were seeing,” said Rob Muir, Africa Program Director at Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) — a wildlife group that’s been engaged in the fight at ground zero for years.
Longtime park tour-guide David Guthrie added, “In 17 years of working in the Selous I had seen two elephant carcasses but in 2010 they started appearing in numbers and by 2012 it was just awful.”
Guthrie told The Telegraph a tale of bloody massacres where the peaceful giants are shot before hobbling off to die painfully in nearby foliage. “We were hearing shots regularly from the camps. We would have injured bull elephants walking in to try to find safety and dying under trees.”
Ivory is a valuable commodity, fetching at least $1,500 a pound. The Atlantic assessed, “The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries.” While rich Chinese buyers with no moral qualms fuel the trade on one end, poverty is the driving force on the other.
To say that Africa is “poor” would be the understatement of the month. According to the World Bank, all ten of the world’s top 10 poorest countries are in Africa. Although Tanzania doesn’t crack that top ten list, relatively speaking, it is still extremely poor.
A massive surge in demand for ivory, fueled primarily by the Chinese, has led to a gold-rush like frenzy where teams of organized bandits, wielding elephant guns and chainsaws, have been mowing the gentle vegetarians down in droves.
Unfortunately for the elephants, these heartless thugs are much more organized and cunning than they’ve been in years past, in large part due to the escalating scrutiny that has befallen their black-market trade.
Reports from the ground tell a story of badly outnumbered game officials in a massive stretch of wilderness where poachers now have more guns, technology, manpower and money, than the officers trying to catch them.
These same in-the-field accounts also explain how the game reserve’s turf is simply so expansive that the organized raiders, with their superior resources, are able to easily circumvent security nets and slip through the shoddy and undermanned webs intended to catch them.
Sadly, the bleak situation facing Tanzania’s elephant population is not confined to the Selous Game Reserve, or Tanzania for that matter, as most of the remaining elephant populations on the planet are imperiled. A New York Times video, titled “The Ivory Wars,” demonstrates the level of intensity at hand in Congo’s poaching crisis — and Congo and Tanzania are certainly not alone where poaching battles are concerned.
As dismal as the future may seem for the mighty elephant, here and there, there is a glimmer of hope in the animals’s plight, as several organizations, and even companies have stepped up to the plate with innovate solutions, offering alternatives to killing them — deaths that occur not only for their prized tusks, but in some countries, sheerly for being a “nuisance” as well.
In Sri Lanka for example, populations were being decimated by farmers who complained the mild-mannered creatures were destroying their crops. Enter Mr. Ellie Pooh — a company that makes incredible paper from elephant poop (yes you did read that right). Mr. Ellie Pooh has become so favorable with locals that it has greatly reduced the killing of the animals, as farmers have become hip to the fact that they can actually make more money by harvesting elephant poop for paper making, than they can make by farming rice.
Amazing Hand-Crafted Elephant Poop Paper From Sri Lanka
Certainly a large percentage of the world’s people would prefer to see the animal’s poop peacefully harvested for paper, versus the entire animal itself harvested to make ivory art pieces for a few wealthy Chinese. But, will the Tanzanian government, and others on the ground, act in time to devise a preservation strategy that will really work — a plan that can save the country’s herds before it’s too late? That remains to be seen.
Elephants have a lifespan of 75 years or so — very similar to that of a human. They also can’t reproduce in the first or second year of life like most land animals, but have to mature into a puberty-like stage at about 15 years of age, at which time they become capable. Males, are then gently nudged out on their own, like a teenager leaving home for college — having to go out into the cold scary world, away from the family-oriented, sheltering, tribe-like situation wherein female elephants live and rear their young.
Elephants are also said to have very good memories, and also show a lot of concern and care for fallen comrades and injured members of their own family troupe. A video from TheDodo.com shows elephants racing over to help a fallen comrade who crashed and burned in a circus while attempting a dangerous two-legged balancing act, from high above on shakily stacked platforms — the type of demonstration that many elephant-rights activists abhor to begin with.
It is hard to not feel sorry for this creature, wearing a silly hat, while still compliantly aiming to please a crowd of amused onlookers, despite what humans have done to its species. Elephants have been revered as sacred in a few cultures, but they have been abused, hunted and killed by most.
Many argue the characteristics of the mighty African elephant are strikingly similar to human traits, leaving animal-rights activists to wonder why more isn’t being done internationally to protect the iconic species.
Elephants don’t grow on trees as the cliche’ goes. Tragically, many baby elephants are also meeting a premature end as a result of Tanzania’s bloody slaughter, which only adds tinder to the fire in this enormous, elephant-size, genocide-like nightmare.
Elephants, like old-growth trees in ancient forests are a “resource” that is scarcely renewable at best. Still, impoverished, uneducated, ruthless guerrilla-like teams, continue to mow down the defenseless creatures at a flabbergasting pace — in turn, sawing off their tusks with chainsaws, as if they were timber — as if they were just another resource commodity to be later sold at market.
Considering the distinct similarities between humans and elephants, one of nature’s most iconic and good-natured beasts, many people around the world are now watching in outrage as the African sands run red with blood — looking on with concern to see if Tanzania’s government will do anything meaningful in time to preserve Loxodonta africana — the scientific name for a creature being illegally clearcut at a horrifying rate, in the bushy bosom of Tanzania’s vast national parks.
FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Journalist, Author