Maputo — Poachers are killing four to five elephants a day in Mozambique, or 1,500 to 1,800 a year, according to Carlos Lopes Pereira, of the World Conservation Society.
This was one of the sombre statistics presented on Monday, at the start of a two day seminar on poaching organised by the Mozambican Attorney-General’s Office, in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
According to Pereira, there were about 50,000 elephants in Mozambique in the 1970s. A census of the elephant population in 2008 found only 22,144, and the number alive today is estimated at only 19,600.
The elephant population has been fragmented. Of the remaining animals, only four per cent live in the south (in Maputo and Gaza provinces, mostly along the border with South Africa), and 30 per cent live in the centre of the country, mostly in Tete. But the bulk of Mozambique’s elephants are concentrated in the far north, in the Niassa National Reserve, and in the Quirimbas national park, in Cabo Delgado.
And it is the Niassa and Quirimbas elephant herds that are now being targeted by organised criminal gangs, in what Pereira said “can be described, with no exaggeration, as a national disaster”.
An aerial survey of the Quirimbas Park in 2013 found 854 live elephants, and 811 carcasses of elephants slaughtered by poachers. In other words, 48.7 per cent of the elephants spotted in the park were dead. A similar survey in the Niassa Reserve in 2011 found 12,029 live elephants and 2,627 carcasses.
Pereira’s estimates were that one elephant a day is being killed in the Quirimbas park and three to four a day in the Niassa reserve.
He warned that, at this rate, within 30 years the elephant will be extinct in the Niassa reserve, just as the rhinoceros has already been driven to extinction in Mozambique.
Pereira said that Mozambique is now seen internationally as one of the countries which is not taking action against elephant poaching. The lax attitude of the authorities can be seen from the fact that ivory – including raw ivory in the shape of elephant tasks – is publicly on sale in Maputo. Buyers (mostly from Asia) can pick up raw ivory and ivory trinkets at handicrafts fairs in the capital, under the noses of the police.
He said that 44 per cent of the poachers in Niassa are Tanzanian – but they depend on corrupt officials on both sides of the border.
They cross the frontier with the connivance of the Mozambican frontier guard, Pereira said, while corrupt police in Tanzania authorise the purchase of ammunition for the poachers.
One alarming recent development is the use of poison.
Poachers have poisoned at least five small lakes in Tete. Pereira pointed out that this indiscriminate weapon kills not only elephants, but anything else that drinks at the lakes.
Both Pereira and Antonio Abacar, the administrator of the Limpopo National Park in Gaza, criticised the slow and inadequate response of the police and courts. Abacar pointed out that, even when poachers are caught and fined, the fines are often not paid. This harms the morale of the game wardens, who are entitled to 50 per cent of the fines.
“Currently there are no poachers who are detained, sentenced to jail or who pay their fines”, he said. “The guns seized are placed under police custody, but they are not secure. There are negotiations and the use of influence to guarantee that poachers are not sentenced”.
Pereira noted that it was difficult to obtain search or arrest warrants, and the police failed to recognise the authority of game wardens, even though the law entitles the wardens to carry guns, and obliges the police to collaborate in protecting wildlife resources.
He thought it was urgent to set up police units dedicated to protecting Mozambique’s natural resources, and that a body of prosecutors should be trained to work with the management of the country’s conservation areas.