Without a solution to the poaching crisis, the death of conservationists will continue


Ben Fogle, The Guardian

Date Published
The death of Roger Gower, shot through his helicopter by AK47 while protecting Tanzania’s game reserves from poachers, is the culmination of a worrying trend in the east African nation that has seen its wildlife populations plummet in recent years.

In 2014 a helicopter donated to the Tanzanian government to help the anti-poaching operations crashed, killing four. In December last year, Tanzania National Parks’ head of anti-poaching Emily Kisamo was murdered. Four have been charged, but there are still uncertainties as to the reasons for his killing, or the cause of the helicopter crash.

The country is plagued by corruption, an acknowledgement made by recently elected president John Magufuli, who won the election on an anti-corruption ticket.

Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory in the world and China the largest market for smuggled tusks. According to one report, there is direct collusion between Chinese criminal gangs and Tanzanian officials in the trade of ivory. The vast majority of the illegal ivory – experts say as much as 70% – is sent to China.

Though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many been able to afford it, whatever the price. Its economic boom has created a vast middle class, increasing the demand for ivory and pushing the price to stratospheric levels. Within the next 15 years, another 250 million people are expected to join China’s middle class, something that will squeeze countries like Tanzania further still.

I spent much of last year in and around Tanzania’s Serengeti national park for a new TV series following the migration of the wildebeest. I saw firsthand the devastating consequences of poaching. I saw elephants with ivory hacked from their faces and the lengths private parks go to protect their precious wildlife.

Last June, I attended a government wildlife seminar in Arusha that was hosted by one of the country’s largest game hunting safari companies. The helicopters and champagne seemed at odds with the astonishing and embarrassing announcement from the country’s minister for natural resources and tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu, that between 2009 and 2014 the number of elephants dropped from 109,051 to 43,330 – a 60% decline.

Ivory is quickly becoming the new blood diamond of Africa and one that fuels militia battles. Some of the most notorious armed groups on the continent, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons.

Some suggest that poaching be limited by providing a regulated supply of ivory gathered by the stockpiling of tusks from culls and natural deaths. But past experience – a one-off sale of legal ivory to China in 2008 – shows this approach actually worsens poaching.

Armies and former soldiers are working in the field to help protect elephants. Some have suggested staining the ivory; cameras and trackers have even been embedded within the tusk; others have arranged for tusks to be removed pre-emptively by conservationists.

Throughout my year I met both former and current poachers. I met dozens of locals living on the border of the national and private parks, forced into poaching for survival. I met fathers who admitted killing elephants to feed their children. While there is undoubtedly a distinction between the locals who kill, hunt and poach for survival and the organised crime that is decimating the wild populations, Africa’s wildlife and those who protect it are now on the frontline. The state-sponsored anti-poaching patrols are outnumbered and outgunned.

Throughout my year, I never saw a single anti-poaching unit in any of the national parks, compared to the relatively well-trained and -equipped security guards employed by the private parks.

Many locals in east Africa are calling for fences to separate wildlife and people. They argue it will reduce conflict and also make it easier to protect the wildlife from poachers. From my experience in Tanzania, no fence and no militia will hold back the tide of poachers drawn by the huge sums of money at stake. It is a trade partly born out of inequality.

Unless we can ensure the locals benefit from the wildlife in their front garden, they will continue to exploit it. About 35,000 African elephants are poached every year; that’s one elephant every 15 minutes. At this rate, they will soon become extinct. The African wilderness is at war and unless we find a solution soon, the deaths of heroic conservationists like Gower will continue.