Dogs and Informants Track Down Elephant’s Killers


By J.D. O’Kasick, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic

Date Published
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His black snout twitching furiously among the tall grasses, Rocky heaved ahead on the scent trail. Rocky’s handler, along with five armed rangers, followed the German shepherd’s lead, scanning the savanna for footprints and discarded evidence.
The night before, on July 26, poachers had killed another elephant bull at Manyara Ranch.
Manyara is a 35,000-acre conservancy jointly managed by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and the Tanzania Land Conservation Trust just north of Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park, at the apex of the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem.
The ecosystem encompasses more than 9,500 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) of wooded savanna and open plains set against the towering backdrop of the Great Rift Valley escarpment.
The anti-poaching ranger team stationed at the ranch had narrowly missed ambushing the killers, who had only enough time to hack out one of the fallen elephant’s tusks before fleeing.
Eventually, the poachers, five of them, were caught, and all are now in jail awaiting trial in Arusha. The story of their capture and the elephant they killed is emblematic of trends and challenges in combatting poaching and the illicit wildlife trade across Tanzania.
According to a study released by the Wildlife Conservation Society earlier this year, elephant numbers in the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem have been on the rise since the 2000s, and the population is now estimated at about 3,800.
Yet the same study also notes a recent increase in poaching among communities surrounding the parks: From January 2012 through July 2013, poachers killed more than 25 elephants on the ranch.
Although the numbers of elephants poached in northern Tanzania—the heart of the country’s critically important tourism industry—are still small compared with those lost in the south, the prospect of gangs moving into the north is beyond disturbing.
Star of the Unit
Rocky is the star of the Big Life Tracker Dog Unit, an elite anti-poaching team of four dogs and six handlers funded by the Big Life Foundation and managed in northern Tanzania by the Honeyguide Foundation.
The unit came together in 2011 under the auspices of the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area, in West Kilimanjaro, and later expanded into Serengeti National Park and, in August 2013, into Manyara Ranch.
Honeyguide collaborates closely with Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) and a unit of the government’s wildlife division known as Kikosi cha Zuia Ujangili (KDU), which means “Anti-Poaching Division” in Swahili. AWF and the Nature Conservancy also provide support for the dogs.
During the past two years, that collaboration has resulted in the arrest of more than 70 poachers and criminals.
After the Manyara team was formed, not a single elephant was poached—until late 2014. But since then, some five elephants have been slaughtered on the ranch, and an untold number elsewhere in the ecosystem.
In June, poachers downed two bulls in Manyara. Thanks to Rocky and the tracker dogs, KDU and the rangers apprehended three suspects, including the alleged shooter, who had an AK-47 at his home. All three men are in custody awaiting trial.
The Trail Goes Dead
That late July morning, after frenzied minutes as Rocky tugged his handler this way and that, he came to a sudden stop and raised his head to the overcast sky: The scent trail had vanished.
The poachers had likely caught a lift on an accomplice’s motorbike and made their getaway on the nearby tarmac road.
The realization hit the ranger team hard. They’d been tracking through the bush for more than five hours. Many hadn’t slept after the previous night’s failed pursuit, and a cup or two of tea had been their only sustenance in almost a day.
Now they knew that the poachers might be in deep hiding, and the lone tusk might already be halfway across the country on its way to be sold to a middleman for shipment overseas.
“We will still find them,” said Kayongo Kalasinga, the senior dog handler, but his words carried more anxiety than hope.
As the dog unit followed the scent trail, a second group of rangers was investigating the crime scene back at the ranch.
The dead elephant was young, perhaps no more than 20.
As is typical of these grisly killings, the poachers had hacked off his entire face and half his head with an axe. Even some 13 hours later, blood was still seeping out of his cranium.
The elephant had met his end from a single bullet fired from a .458 rifle. The bullet pierced his left side near the shoulder and exited his right side farther back, possibly rupturing a lung and other organs.
“The shooter is skilled,” says John Magembe, Honeyguide’s head trainer and anti-poaching commander.
Weeks after last December’s loss of Manyara’s first elephant under Honeyguide’s watch, the anti-poaching forces made a major breakthrough: Tips from community members and other intelligence led to the apprehension of two suspects, both known elephant poachers.
One, the suspected shooter, goes by the alias Mapengo and is from the village of Mswakini Juu, between Manyara Ranch and Tarangire National Park.
The other, a member of Mapengo’s gang named Loserian, is from another village also adjacent to the ranch. He is now in jail in Arusha awaiting trial.
Authorities believe Mapengo has poached wildlife in the area and perhaps elsewhere in Tanzania for more than a decade, and his capture caused much celebration among rangers and others familiar with his bloody legacy.
Poaching gangs like Mapengo’s are highly organized, most often including a gun bearer, a shooter, scouts and lookouts, and men whose job is to cut out and carry the tusks.
Killings usually happen at night and when there’s enough moon to make it easier to see.
After the shooter downs an elephant or elephants, he hands his weapon to the gunbearer, and they both flee the scene, often in opposite directions.
The cutting-and-carrying crew then goes to work. Even with a simple axe, they can hack out tusks in less than 20 minutes.
They might bury the ivory and retrieve it days or weeks later. Another tactic is to hide the tusks deep in piles of cow dung to conceal their odor.
Following tusks from a cache in the bush near a village like Mswakini all the way to a kingpin or ivory shop in a Chinese city is something no one has yet been able to do. (Read about Bryan Christy’s attempt here.)
The Man With the Loose Tongue
In early July, the unthinkable happened: While in custody and awaiting trial, Mapengo, who had posted nearly $10,000 dollars bail—a fortune by Tanzanian standards—was allowed to walk away.
“I cannot tell you how infuriating that is,” Magembe says. “We risk our lives, we help others to make a major arrest, and then this hardened criminal is just let out of jail like it’s nothing.”
Then on the night of July 27, in an unlicensed backroom pub, a young man the worse for drink started talking.
Taking occasional sips of gongo, a potent illicit brew distilled from sugar cane, he told the other patrons of how the previous night he’d invaded Manyara Ranch, helped kill an elephant, cut out one of its tusks, and just managed to escape.
As he bragged about his exploits, one of Honeyguide’s informants sat quietly taking it all in.
Two days later, the young man, whose name is still in question, was in jail. He later pointed the finger at Mapengo as the chief poacher and gave the names of four others in the poaching crew.
Punishment to Fit the Crime?
On July 29, the case involving Mapengo‘s December 2014 elephant killing came up for a hearing in Arusha.
At 8:00 a.m., Mapengo dutifully showed up at the courthouse and was immediately arrested for the second time, accused now of the July 26 killing.
He hadn’t heard that one of his men had ratted not only on him but also on several others in his gang.
Within days, three other prime suspects were apprehended. Mapengo and his four poaching accomplices will stand trial in Arusha, with the next hearing date set for late September.
In recent years, many poaching cases in Tanzania have been referred to higher courts, such as in Arusha and Dar-es-Salaam, rather than district courts, which are less transparent.
Yet even in the higher courts, evidence is often mishandled, and cases can fall apart.
Poaching syndicates are well financed and sophisticated. Although lower level arrests are made in the field, top financiers, corrupt officials, and middlemen in urban centers are rarely caught and prosecuted.
As demonstrated by Mapengo’s bail release, it’s sometimes a tall order to keep poaching’s foot soldiers behind bars.
Judges need more training in wildlife laws, and penalties need to be stiffened. Even when there are convictions, fines or prison sentences can amount to no more than a slap on the wrist.
Honeyguide’s John Magembe hopes that won’t be the case this time. “That man should be in a prison cell for the rest of his life,” he says. “That is what should happen.”
That would be reassuring for the rangers and their dogs who sweat it out every day in the dust and heat to protect elephants and capture their killers.
J.D. O’Kasick is a consultant with Honeyguide Foundation, which manages the projects of its main partner, Kenya-based Big Life Foundation, in Tanzania and receives support from the African Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and USAID.