Ring of Elephant Poachers Broken Up by Tanzanian Authorities


Willy Lowry, The New York Times

Date Published

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — An investigation into the death of a British helicopter pilot who was looking for poachers near Serengeti National Park has uncovered a criminal poaching ring led by a rogue intelligence officer, the Tanzanian authorities said on Monday.

After a weeklong manhunt that involved house-to-house searches in villages surrounding the reserve, at least nine people have been arrested in connection with the death of the pilot, including Iddi Mashaka, a former police officer who used his current position as an intelligence officer with a regional conservation authority to help the poachers travel undetected, said Lazaro Mambosasa, the regional police commissioner. With the arrests, the authorities said, the ring has been dismantled.

The pilot, Roger Gower, 37, was shot on Jan. 29 while conducting anti-poaching surveillance over the Maswa Game Reserve. He and a colleague, Nick Bester, came across a newly killed elephant and circled back to take a closer look, and their helicopter was shot at by poachers who were apparently still at the scene, the police have said. A bullet from a .458 hunting rifle punctured the floor of the helicopter and ripped through Mr. Gower’s leg and shoulder. He managed to land the helicopter but died from his injuries before help could arrive.

Among those arrested was the gunman, Njile Gonga, 28, who led the police to the rifle, hidden on his roof, and to tusks he had taken from the elephant, Mr. Mambosasa said.

The country’s National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit teamed up with the police and the local authorities to find the suspects, one of whom was chased hundreds of kilometers to the Tanzanian capital, Dodoma.

“We took this very seriously,” said Maj. Gen. Gaudence Milanzi, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. “We put a lot of effort into catching these poachers.”

Poaching is a serious problem in Tanzania. According to the most recent elephant census, published in June 2015, the country has 43,000 elephants, down from 109,000 in 2009.

In November 2014, the country formed a task force to investigate poaching. The task force has made a number of high-profile arrests in recent months, including that of Yang Feng Glan, a Chinese citizen suspected of exporting thousands of tons of ivory to China. She is awaiting trial in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of Tanzania. Since the task force was formed, it has made more than 1,000 arrests.

Mr. Gower worked for the Friedkin Conservation Fund and grew up in Birmingham, England. He trained as an accountant, but on the day he qualified for the job, he quit and started traveling the world, his brother Max Gower said in an interview. His travels eventually took him to Florida, where he trained to become a helicopter pilot. “He was very much his own man,” his brother said.

Mr. Gower had worked in East Africa for the last seven years, spending time in Kenya and Tanzania. “Going to Tanzania, he had an opportunity to fly and look after animals and to watch animals, and it was a lot of things he loved all rolled into one,” Max Gower said.

Mr. Gower’s body was returned to England on Friday. The family has set up a crowdfunding campaign in his honor that has already raised more than 50,000 pounds, or $72,000, money they hope will to use to help combat poaching in Tanzania.