Is the Worst of Tanzania’s Elephant Crisis Over?

After announcing devastating elephant losses, a top Tanzanian minister says poaching is now on the decline.

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A male elephant in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park spreads his ears as a warning. Between 2009 and 2014, elephant numbers in the Serengeti ecosystem nearly doubled, to 6,087. But in larger, more remote areas, poaching has taken a terrible toll.

The East African nation of Tanzania has been the main source of illegal ivory from savanna elephants for nearly a decade, according to a new DNA study of tusks from confiscated ivory shipments.

The country’s elephant population fell by 60 percent just in the past five years to around 43,000, according to a recent nationwide census. The census results were recently announced by Tanzania's minister of natural resources and tourism, Lazaro Nyalandu. (Read about how most of Tanzania's elephants are disappearing.)

Nyalandu drew praise for making such grim figures public even as he was seeking nomination as the ruling party’s next presidential candidate. (He didn’t make the shortlist.)  

Yet the announcement also sparked ridicule.

Nyalandu characterized the survey results as a "mixed bag" and said his ministry would "launch an extensive operation in search" for 12,000 "lost" elephants.

But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe recently told National Geographic that "it’s not that these elephants have gone on a walkabout."

"These elephants have been slaughtered on an industrial scale for their ivory," Ashe said.

Speaking from Tanzania's political capital, Dodoma, Nyalandu insists that his country is tackling its ivory-trafficking problem and that the worst is over for Tanzania's elephants.

How do you respond to Dan Ashe's observation that there is a lack of "top-to-bottom" commitment to fight ivory trafficking in Tanzania?

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Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism Lazaro Nyalandu inspects rangers at Selous Game Reserve. Once home to more than 100,000 elephants, the reserve’s population stood at just over 15,000 in 2014.

Knowing what I know, in terms of action from the ground, commitment from the top level in government, but also the participation by our friends in the international community, I would say that the opposite is true. I think there’s enormous commitment.

As minister, I'm dedicated personally to seeing this battle won.

We believe that the poaching crisis has been curtailed. In the next 15 years, hopefully, Tanzania is going to have 100,000 elephants.

The 2014 census figures suggest otherwise. What leads you to believe that the crisis has been curtailed?

The number of seizures, the number of poachers that we catch, is dropping quite drastically. This is at the same time that we have quadrupled the number on man-patrol since February last year.

That's why I can assure you that the worst is over.

Having said so, I don't want to give the impression that we are no longer facing the poaching crisis. The judicial system will have to work much better to fight corruption, so that those that we catch should face the full measure of law. I would like to see more bad guys go to jail for a long time.

I think we're seeing improvements. But if I tell you, elephant poaching is defeated, I would be speaking less than truth.

The international community will have to stay with us for the foreseeable future to make sure that we can actually win this battle. We would like to see more action in terms of funding and technical support.  

How do you assure donors that the resources they're putting in go to the right place?

We are changing the way wildlife protection is done in Tanzania.

Instead of the game department being under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, the Tanzania Wildlife Authority is a completely new agency, responsible for over 120,000 square kilometers [46,332 square miles] of land.

It will be very easy to hire and very easy to fire. The disciplinary action will be much better than in the civil service bureaucracy.

One of the complaints from conservation groups is that the high-level ivory traffickers haven't been prosecuted and convicted.

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Ivory seized by Philippine customs authorities over a two-year period came mostly from Tanzanian ports. A recent DNA study of seized elephant tusks found that southeastern Tanzania has been a major source of illicit ivory since 2006.

The government and this ministry has not spared a single individual that has come into our lights as being involved in trafficking.

We have had 40-plus very high-profile names within the country that have been implicated in poaching activities.

We’ve caught members of the police force and high up members of the People's Defense Forces of Tanzania. We have caught some clergymen.

Members of Parliament have been named, but they haven't been investigated or prosecuted, have they?

We do not have in custody any member of Parliament so far that has been involved in poaching.

When we catch a politician, we'd be more than happy to prosecute them.

The 2014 survey indicated that the elephant population in the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem, in Tanzania's undeveloped south, crashed from 20,000 in 2013 to 8,272. Critics suggest that your plan to recount those elephants is an attempt to downplay these devastating figures.

They need to appreciate that this is a new thinking in Tanzania.

Usually, the country does the counting itself. This time around, we wanted to be more transparent and more scientific. So I invited the Frankfurt Zoological Society of Germany, as well as Vulcan Inc. of the U.S., under the Paul Allen Foundation.

We are all ashamed of the poaching crisis, even people who do not care much about wildlife.
Lazaro Nyalandu | Tanzania's Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism

We opened ourselves to the inspection, so to speak. It's like asking Iran: Open yourself fully to global inspection, whether or not you have nuclear materials.

This validation will tell the world, yes, the figures we had in our previous census stand. Or, we are able to count additional numbers of elephant.

No matter what kind of re-survey will be done, I think the numbers will still be low.

What are you doing to protect the remaining elephants in Ruaha-Rungwa?

We are doubling the number of game rangers to 140 right away.

This is a big commitment given that you have to provide transportation, weaponry, uniforms, etc., for them to be able to work effectively.

And to protect elephants in Tanzania in general?

In June 2014, I hired an additional 500 rangers. By the end of the year, we had hired another 500.

Tanzania and Mozambique have signed a bilateral agreement to protect the Selous-Niassa Corridor, which will become the world's largest protected area.

I have signed a new agreement with my Zambian counterpart to protect the Miombo woodland, about 2.5 million square kilometers [965,000 square miles] of land crisscrossing Tanzania and Zambia, a crucial habitat for the elephants.

Together with WildAid, an American NGO, we brought in the religious leaders to participate in public service announcements to tell the public to stop supporting any sort of poaching. This was huge because Tanzania is a very religious country.

We are all ashamed of the poaching crisis, even people who do not care much about wildlife. And it is our desire to make sure that it is put behind us.

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Editor's Note: On July 16, Minister Nyalandu's response to the second question was expanded for clarification.

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