Inside Tanzania’s Silent War on Elephants: A Tale of Poaching and Political Silence

Male African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. Selous has lost about 90 per cent of its elephants to poachers in recent years. Copyright: © GaryRobertsphotography / WWF.

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Amboseli game wardens view all tuskers as their own, and when the elephants travel to Tanzania, they believe the jumbos are only on a touring expedition. Tanzanian conservationists are now being blamed for silently allowing the poaching of these elephants.

While Tanzania has imposed a moratorium on elephant hunting, it has not aggressively enforced the ban, provoking outrage from the Amboseli game reservists. This article examines the dilemmas in elephant conservation, why game hunting is unprofitable for Tanzania, and whether a middle ground can be found.

Tanzania’s government policy limits the official hunting of elephants to 50 per year, but the revenue generated is too insignificant to support the survival of the jumbos. This raises the burning question: why sustain an ineffective policy? According to available statistics, despite Tanzania’s interventionist policies and Kenya’s non-interventionist approach, the elephant population continues to decline across the board.

Tanzania today has around 60,000 elephants, a significant decrease from approximately 316,000 in 1978. In Kenya, about 35,000 elephants remain, down from around 160,000 during the same period. While factors such as habitat size, the growth of human settlements in wilderness areas, and declining water sources may influence elephant population dynamics, poaching remains the primary contributor to the decline of these majestic animals.

Also, read: The Pitfalls in Hunting Tourism: Could it Be an Unavoidable Menace We Have to Endure?

Cases of agitation against elephant poaching often go unresolved, exemplified by the assassination of a South African campaigner in broad daylight in Dar es Salaam, with no one held accountable. This emboldens poachers, suggesting that the state tacitly condones illegal hunting.

A recent online exposé revealed a senior government official caught trafficking elephant tusks from Katavi National Park, implicating high-ranking officials in poaching activities. Without logistical support, funding, and protection from government officials, elephant poaching in Tanzania would not persist as a significant issue.

Controlling poaching amidst issuing game hunting permits sets a dangerous precedent, potentially using the latter as a cover-up for the former. It’s challenging to combat poachers when hunting permits are in play.

Despite different conservation approaches in Kenya and Tanzania, both countries are experiencing declines in elephant populations, prompting us to question where the efforts went wrong. Kenya blames Tanzania, while Tanzania remains ominously silent.

Loss of habitat due to cultivation poses a significant threat to elephant survival, although it alone cannot fully explain the rapid decline in populations. Habitat loss disrupts migratory routes and intensifies human-wildlife conflicts, but it does not constitute a massacre. While highways may result in elephant casualties, they alone cannot account for thousands fewer elephants every few years.

Storing elephant tusks may seem like a tempting idea, but it also raises suspicions that some of the contraband is being smuggled out of the country. Many stored tusks lack DNA data, historical records, and digital tracking, compromising the integrity of conservation efforts.

Former President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, concerned about the potential theft and illegal sale of officially seized tusks, decided to burn them—a move praised globally. Moi prioritized conservation over potential profits, viewing any deceptive opportunities as threats to wildlife conservation efforts.

Tanzania faces a dilemma: trying to balance consumptive and non-consumptive tourism simultaneously. The country must choose between the two options. Consumptive tourism complicates efforts to combat poaching by blurring the lines between legal hunting activities and illegal poaching.

When hunting permits are in place, gunshots that would otherwise alert authorities to investigate become normalized. Even the discovery of an elephant carcass can be dismissed, as legal hunting permits can obscure the true causes of death. This situation allows poachers and their allies to exploit legal loopholes, endangering the elephant population.

As the elephant population dwindles to perilous levels, their crucial role in natural regeneration is also under threat. Elephants clear paths through dense forests, enabling other creatures to access these otherwise impenetrable areas. Through cross-pollination, they protect and sustain biodiversity threatened by human neglect or indifference.

Elephants create water sources by digging trenches and opening up boreholes, benefiting numerous organisms, including humans. The existence of elephants is integral to maintaining ecological balance; over-reliance on artificial means of forest regeneration poses unknown risks to humanity’s long-term well-being. Humanity’s pretence of superiority and arrogance towards creation is a tragic narrative.

As scripture teaches, a righteous person cares for their animals. We must prioritize the defense of elephant survival at all costs, lest we jeopardize the natural renewal of divine resources.

Hunting traumatizes elephants, instilling hostility towards humans. Incidents of photographers being attacked by elephants are increasing, as these animals perceive cameras as threats akin to firearms. Elephants feel compelled to defend themselves against perceived threats from hunters.

Read: Sustainable Tech Solutions for Wildlife Conservation in Tanzania

Unlike hippos, whose tusks are sought for aphrodisiac potions and ceremonial daggers symbolizing wealth, elephant tusks lack such oral demand that would justify poisoning them with cyanide to reduce demand. Until technology advances to economically replace elephant tusks in manufacturing piano keys, elephants will tragically continue to be slaughtered.

Efforts to persuade piano key manufacturers to abandon ivory have failed, as alternatives like plastics have proven either too costly or too impractical due to their tendency to become slippery from sweat, disrupting the market. International cooperation is essential to curbing the demand for elephant carvings, yet countries like China, Taiwan, and India, major consumers of ivory products, are reluctant due to concerns over job losses.

Tanzania’s wildlife hunting industry is plagued by rampant corruption, severely undermining its potential to generate jobs and economic growth. A small minority profits greatly while the majority suffers. Even farmers whose crops are regularly destroyed by elephants rarely receive compensation from authorities.

Yet these farmers are crucial players in conservation efforts; they coexist in close proximity with elephants, albeit often in conflict. Despite this antagonistic relationship, land cultivators are vital for the survival and conservation of elephants.

The elephant population continues to decline, with their habitats being expropriated by land cultivators to a point where sustaining elephant populations becomes increasingly untenable. These cultivators wield significant political influence, yet the true consequences emerge after land degradation and famine strike the local communities.

Recognizing elephants’ critical role in ecosystem sustainability, efforts to restore their numbers to beneficial levels will require decades, all while human suffering from famine spreads.

Tanzanian conservation efforts fall short of educating the public on elephants’ essential role in maintaining life. As we deplete their numbers, we push ourselves into a destructive cycle of natural unpredictability. The Almighty created all living and non-living entities for a purpose; for survival, all creatures must coexist, mutually dependent. When one species faces extinction, it disrupts the delicate balance of life, affecting others in the cycle.

Humanity bears the responsibility of conserving the environment for future generations of all species. However, a dismissive and greedy attitude towards elephant poaching jeopardizes this divine duty.

We must awaken before irreversible damage occurs. Do we act now or wait until it’s too late to salvage what’s lost? The power to make a difference lies in our hands. Future generations depend on our actions, yet we hesitate, displaying indecision.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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