China throws a lifeline to Tanzania’s elephants


By Brian Jackman

Date Published

When China pledged to phase out domestic manufacture and the sale of ivory products for the first time last month the news was hailed by conservationists as holding out the single greatest hope for Africa’s remaining elephant herds.

The move follows a visit by Prince William to China in March, in which he urged its government to put a stop to its “ignorant craving” for ivory. It also comes just in time to halt the flow of ivory pouring out of Tanzania, where poaching on an industrial scale has turned some of the country’s parks and game reserves into giant killing fields.

According to the Tanzanian government, more than 65,000 elephants have been killed in the last five years, a situation described by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife monitoring unit, as “catastrophic”.

The northern parks, where most tourists go, have been largely spared, and visitors are unlikely to notice the losses. In the Serengeti national park, the elephant population has actually doubled, from 3,068 to 6,087.

• Poaching in Africa: Selous Game Reserve warning highlights scale of epidemic

But in the south it is a different story. In and around the Ruaha national park, numbers have plummeted, from 34,664 in 2009 to only 8,272 today; and the Selous, a game reserve twice the size of Switzerland, poachers have slaughtered more than half of its elephants in the last five years, leaving only 13,000 animals where more than 100,000 roamed wild in 1976.

Chris McIntyre, of Expert Africa, said that the figures about Ruaha, were especially sad and hopes that China will put its words into action.

“There are some political efforts in China, but they’re still taking a lot of time to filter down to the grass roots of the country,” he said. “It’s a massive country with tiers and tiers of bureaucracy. But a real, long-term change in the Chinese policy to ivory imports would hugely reduce poaching levels overnight.”

Such positive steps could put an end to the illegal wildlife trade that has resulted in 45 tons of elephant tusks flowing out of Tanzania since 2009.