Why poaching is linked to depletion of ecosystem (Tanzania)


Attilio Tagalile, The Daily News

Date Published

One of the problems facing governments in countries endowed with elephants is educating their people on the importance of ensuring that such animals remain intact with their tusks.

It’s always difficult to explain to people, especially the poverty stricken living in the corridors around national parks or game reserves on why killing of elephants is linked to the depletion of the ecosystem and indeed their own survival.

And this is because of the difficulty authorities usually face and resistance in changing their peoples’ behavior towards poaching. Such countries, which include Tanzania, have as a result been spending billions of shillings every year in protecting elephants.

Protection of elephants that includes another equally targeted, hapless animal, the rhino, is made through salaries and allowances for armed game rangers and wardens, buying and maintenance, round the clock, of their patrol vehicles and fueling them throughout the year.

Any failure, even for one day, of taking care of game rangers and wardens in terms of providing them with continuous training, equipping them with weapons and paying their salaries and allowances in good time could easily lead into killing of elephants.

The foregoing assertion is supported with what afflicted one of the country’s leading game reserves, the 50,000 square km Selous Game Reserve. In 1976, the Selous Game Reserve, which is bigger than Switzerland, had 110,000 elephants, making it at the time one of the biggest concentrations of free roaming elephants in the world.

However, by 2014, the SGR’s elephant population had been decimated to a mere 15,000 through a combination of various factors that included, among others, poaching as a result of poor protection of the reserve.

For instance, at one point poaching in the Selous Game Reserve was so high that it was christened the industrial poaching, on account of elephants which were being killed per day.

This was the time when the retention scheme that had involved withholding of half of revenue earned from trophy hunting and photography being removed by the government.

The removal of the retention scheme meant that the deployment of game rangers and wardens to protect elephants in the reserve was poor, hence allowing poachers a free reign in the reserve to do what they wanted with elephants.

The fight against poaching has also been compounded by the failure by those in the fore front in the anti-poaching campaign to go beyond the importance of tourism when explaining to the intended target on why elephants needed protection.

To understand and appreciate the importance of elephants in the protection and sustenance of the ecosystem, it’s prudent to delve into the role of the biggest mammal on the land.

According to one of the leading ecologists in Tanzania who has worked in the field at home and abroad, Mr Asukile Kajuni, elephants are ‘ecological engineers’, in that they help in the growth and wellbeing of the flora and fauna, especially the smaller animal and plants.

For instance, through elephants’ habit of clearing and felling trees and opening patches in the forest, they allow smaller animals, the grazers (herbivores) to spend most of their lives in such open areas which teem with nutritious lush grass for grazing, sleeping and protecting themselves against their predators that includes; lions, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas among others. Because of the openness of such elephant cleared areas, it’s easier for smaller animals to detect a predator on the prowl.

Therefore in the long run, such conduct on the part of elephants help, quite considerably, in the growth and protection of smaller animals.

The absence of elephants in the Selous Game Reserve could ultimately lead to overgrowth of forests which would by extension reduce the presence of open areas for both protection and feeding of other herbivores, hence leading to the reduction in biodiversity – the variety of different species of flora and fauna. It does not therefore need an ecologist to understand and appreciate what the Selous Game Reserve would become if the foregoing happened on account of the absence of elephants in the reserve.

Ecologically, there are certain plants and seeds which happen to be elephants’ staple food that can germinate quickly only after they have gone through the stomach of the elephant and later released as droppings. Again, what this means is that the presence of elephants in a given locality, be it in a national park or game reserve, would automatically see sustained growth of certain trees or vegetation that relate to the animal.

But this does not mean that such trees and vegetation species would never grow as long as a given area had no elephants, far from it. The point is, it may take longer, sometimes up to 50 years lying dormant, compared to if such seeds of trees and vegetation had gone through the stomach of the elephant.

From the foregoing, elephants demonstrate one important thing that makes the wanton killing of such animals not only foolhardy, but also condemnable.

It shows that the elephant, as a developer and protector of flora and fauna through its activities, transforms itself as a grower of trees, vegetation, feeder and protector of smaller animals in game reserves and national parks. But as an animal that conducts their lives more or less like human beings, that includes, among others, mourning departed ones, the animal is very intelligent and an adult elephant has very strong memories.

The implication of this is that old elephants know where they get salt, water and particular species of trees and vegetation for food which may be lying hundreds of kilometers away.

Therefore, when poachers kill old elephants because they have bigger tusks which fetch thousands of US dollars, hence sometime leaving behind very small elephants as they did in the Selous Game Reserve, before the fifth phase government of President Dr John Pombe Magufuli stepped in; they deprive the smaller elephants and other smaller animals of institutional memory on where they can get say, water, salt and other important food stuff.

Again, the absence of the adult elephants on account of poachers being driven by sheer greed just goes to show the ecological impact of such a senseless action. It’s therefore very important for Tanzanians and the ministry responsible for protection of the flora and fauna in particular (the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism), to step up the war against poaching in order to protect elephants from extinction.

In June this year, there was hue and cry when somebody said elephants could disappear in the Selous Game Reserve within six years if something was not urgently done to bring to an end the kind of industrial poaching that had been going on before the government stepped in. Let’s not cheat ourselves; elephants can still disappear, as long as the statements we make to the public are not backed up by action on the ground.

For poaching (which unfortunately is fueled by foreign countries which have shamelessly turned its tusks into white gold) to be reduced to zero, it would require actions by both the government and Tanzanians, and especially so, those living around the SGR to bring themselves to a level where they would consider elephants as animals that require their protection.

For the doubting Thomases over possible disappearance of elephants in our lifetime, they need to realize that the world and Tanzania in particular, lost not long ago the dinosaur which was actually bigger than the elephant.

The question we need to honestly ask ourselves is: If the dinosaur disappeared (the remains of the known living one in the world having come from somewhere in the southern eastern part of Tanzania and now stored in Berlin) what would stop elephants from the Selous Game Reserve from disappearing also if in a period between 1976 and 2016 (which most of the present generation has witnessed and lived through), 90 per cent of elephants were lost through human action, poaching?

In conclusion, poaching does not only destroy tourism, but also the country’s ecosystem, which means Tanzanians’ own life and their livelihood.

For those who have transformed themselves into slaves of products from ivory, including countries which during day time they claim to be Tanzania’s friends and come night, they go for the country’s elephants for its ivory, countries which have produced mega factories for processing ivory into various products, they need to consider the following: What would become of the human race in this planet called Mother Earth if all trees and vegetation were wiped out through the depletion of elephants and other wild animals, hence robbing the world of one of the most important sources of medicine from trees and other vegetations which are presently being protected and sustained by elephants and other wild animals?