It is always exciting when you meet and talk with Dr Alfred Kikoti, Tanzania’s renowned expert in elephant protection, currently working for World Elephant Centre.
I was delighted to meet this man in Morogoro recently, during the Tanzania National Park (TANAPA) workshop for senior editors and journalists, drawn from different media houses and press clubs.
Dr Kikoti impressed most of us, when he presented a paper on Mega herbivores Conservation and Challenges in 21st Century, focusing on elephant and rhinos.
Shocking news we heard from this expert is that the elephant population has declined extensively in the whole country, when compared to the total number of elephants which were still alive in 2009, mentioning major declines in Malagarasi Muyovozi, Ruaha- Rungwa, Selous and Mikumi National Park.
According to him, parties like militant groups in Somalia, the Janjaweed of Sudan, the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Boko Haram in Nigeria and RENAMO in Mozambique are some of the groups fuelling the killing of elephants in Africa today.
Did you know that one dead elephant is valued at only 21,000 US dollars, while single living elephant for life time can generate 1.6 million US dollars? That is one of the major reasons which call for elephant protection at all costs.
Having listened to Dr Kikoti, I made a reflection to wildlife officials in South Africa who released the devastating statistic which showed that 558 rhinos were killed just in 2014.
The same experts say that the number of rhino deaths this year is expected to reach 1004, In 2013, over 20,000 elephants were killed in 2013, and if stern measures are not taken to fight the killings, Africa might one day lose these precious animals.
All over Africa, from Mozambique to Chad, Congo to Kenya, wildlife authorities are reporting massive increases in poaching for the ivory trade. Despite the 2013 elephantrhino killings, experts say that these poaching levels have not exceeded what happened in 1970s and 1980s, when these kings of the jungles were poached almost to extinction.
The poaching occurred because the demand for ivory in Asian countries was high. I those countries ivory is used to treat ailments varying from hangovers to cancer as well as in carvings. This belief started soaring as from the 1970s. Since then, international campaigns began.
Security was increased, and wildlife sanctuaries were set up. In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned international trade in ivory.
But since 2007 poaching has been on the rise once again, and this is again thought to be due to increasing demand for ivory in Asia, particularly in China and Thailand.
According to Dr Kikoti, lawlessness, weak governance and corruption in some African countries provides ideal conditions for the illegal killing of elephants and rhinos, where arms are readily available.
Poverty could also be a reason for poaching, where locals and underpaid wildlife officials, police and military personnel are easily threatened, recruited or bribed. In some countries, wildlife authorities can no longer keep up with the level of poaching, simply because, comparison to the 1970s and 80s, poaching units are now much more sophisticated, organised and well equipped.
Currently, there is a new cause for alarm, because the use of helicopters, night-vision equipment, tranquilizers and silencers allows poachers to target animals at night and avoid law enforcement.
Dr Kikoti says that the situation is now reaching drastic levels and conservation organisations have warned that time is running out for both rhinos and elephants. Whether we like it or not, steps need to be taken and taken fast, if we are to save these charismatic species.
So what can be done to stop poachers?
There are lots of ideas out there, where some experts even talk of legalizing horn and tusks trade. Supporters of this proposal argue that this would take the trade out of the hands of criminals and that, by flooding the market, the price of ivory would drop along with the incentive to kill them.
However, this has not yet been properly evaluated and there are fears that illegal traders would still undercut official operators.
Since the current ivory ban is not being enforced effectively, say experts, legal trade is unlikely to be there. Obviously, legalising this trade might increase demand for ivory, thus fuelling poaching once again.
Some people talk about improved security in national parks and game reserved areas. This is because more work is needed to improve security, particularly at borders between countries and at key locations in the ivory trade chain.
To be effective, this needs to take a multi-country and multi-organization approach to ensure security all along the common ivory routes (most ivory leaves via East African seaports). There is a need to learn from Namibia, which is utilising its armed forces to secure their border posts.
More support and training are needed in addition to improved law enforcement to enhance anti-poaching tracking and intelligence operations.
To protect poaching, experts also talk about de-horning and tusking. A common suggestion is to remove horns and tusks from animals, the idea being, for example, that a rhino without a horn will not be poached.
There have been some successes with this method but it doesn’t always work. Many hornless or tuskless animals are still killed, either to access the ‘stump’ of ivory left behind or out of vengeance.
In actual of fact, these animals need their horns or tusks for social and feeding behaviour and they also grow back with time. Some people have suggested the idea to destroy ivory stocks.
Following Kenya’s example back in the 80s, China recently destroyed its ivory stocks for the first time, sending a message to the world that trade in ivory will not be tolerated. But there is little evidence of whether this is anything more than a gesture or if it actually has any impact on poaching.
There is always a need for education and public awareness both in Africa and in Asia, where the demand for ivory originates.
This is essential but this may be too slow a process to save the world’s elephants and rhinos. There is also a need to apply new technology, because at a rhino reserve in Kenya for example, innovative drone technology is being tested to help rangers in the fight against poaching.
These drones, which also operate after dark using night vision and thermal imaging, can be operated via laptop and act as an extra pair of eyes, helping to locate poachers within the reserve. More research is needed but initial trials have been positive.
Some experts talk about modified horns and tusk as way to deter poachers. At one reserve in South Africa, rhino horns are injected with a mixture of pink dye and poison. The dye can be detected by airport scanners and when ground into a powder, and the poison is not fatal but enough to make the consumer very ill.
There are, however, mixed opinions on this approach. It is feared that although poachers may be deterred in areas where the scheme is highly publicized, it is impractical for animals free-ranging in very large areas, as it may just displace poaching to another area. And logistically it would be impossible to apply this technique to a large number of animals.
Each possible solution has its own pros and cons. Some are not possible logistically on a large scale but may be useful in all our national parks and game reserves. Overall, a combination of these ideas is probably the best way to target poaching in Tanzania today.
We should therefore remain optimistic, believing that some elephant populations remain stable and that for the first time, more ivory seizures are occurring in Africa rather than Asia, indicating better policing in Tanzania and other African countries where poaching is practised.
Combining efforts put forward by TANAPA and experts like Dr Kikoti, poaching may one day end in Tanzania and the neighboring countries, thus lowering the demand ivory in Asia and other countries where the demand for this kind of ivory is high.