It’s been 40 years since the last pan-African elephant census and so we conservationists have been playing a bit of a guessing game as to how Africa’s giants are really faring in terms of hard numbers. Just how bad were the declines and where are the problems greatest? That things were not looking good in the last ten years or so has been known for some time based on what information we do have from local censuses, but the great thing about the very ambitious Great Elephant Census project, led by elephant expert Dr Mike Chase and funded by Microsoft philanthropist Paul Allen, is that it’s given us a really comprehensive picture of what’s happening to African savannah elephants for the first time.
Read the full report here if you like. I’ve tried to summarise the main points below.
The news is not good, even if not unexpected. African savannah elephant populations have declined by 30% between 2007 and 2014, equal to almost 145,000 elephants. A total of 352, 271 elephants were counted in the 18 countries surveyed, representing 93% of elephant range. This means that, when you factor in Namibia’s roughly 20,000 elephants that were not included, and consider the possible other 7%, there could be only around 400,000 savannah elephants left. That’s very much at the lower end of the bracket that we thought the population was. This figure doesn’t include the forest elephants of central and west Africa that are much more under threat and are still being counted. It’s much harder to get a hold on numbers in countries like the Congo and Central African Republic which have unstable political regimes. The rate of decline shown by the census is 8%, which is a very big worry and certainly unsustainable, given that the natural growth rate of elephants is about 5%.
I’m amazed that the IUCN still hasn’t listed forest elephants as a separate species to the savannah elephants of Africa, many years after the DNA studies showed this to be the case. These conservation cogs are turning far too slowly as separating the species would afford forest elephants better protection if they were officially recognised as Endangered. At the moment they are still lumped in with savannah elephants, classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. A new study has just revealed that forest elephants breed more slowly than savannah elephants, with females starting to breed at the age of 23, compared to savannah elephant females at age 12-13. Forest elephant females have a calf an average of every 5-6 years, compared to every 3-4 years for savannah elephants. And the forest species are in some of the hardest hit poaching areas in central and western Africa. Surely it’s time to put some pressure on before these unique elephants are gone.
So what countries have been hardest hit and which ones are doing okay? The map below gives a fair idea. In red are the places were elephants are seriously declining and in green is where they are increasing.
This census has highlighted some areas that we didn’t know were under such serious threat, like the south-western corner of Zambia, where elephants have been almost obliterated right under our noses (95% according to the study), and right next to the prime tourism area of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. These elephants and those in the Congo and and northern Cameroon face imminent extinction. Absolutely shocking. The limited human activity (both tourists and researchers) in the Sioma Ngwezi National Park in south-west Zambia probably has a lot to do with the massive decline there. Central and west Africa remain major hot spots for poaching and haven’t been fully covered by the census to date (that information is still to come).
As for Tanzania, the Serengeti elephants are doing okay, but across the rest of the country elephants are in serious decline. Tanzania and Mozambique remain major hotspots for poaching, having both lost about half of their elephants to poachers in 5 years up to 2015. The census also revealed that poaching in Angola is very severe, a terrible shame as it was hoped that this country would provide a refuge for elephants coming across the border from neighbouring countries with large elephant populations as part of the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area.
In good news for elephants, look at the green areas where elephant populations are increasing, including Kafue National Park in Zambia, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Save Valley Conservancy and Gonarezhou NP in Zimbabwe, and parks in Uganda and Kenya. Increases were documented in populations of elephants in the conservation area spanning the west African countries of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso as well, which is encouraging. Botswana still has the vast majority of elephants in Africa, with a stable population of about 130,000 elephants, followed by Zimbabwe with about 80,000 elephants.
So where does this leave elephants? Well the data is powerful and now it must lead to action to ensure populations that are stable or increasing continue to be built up, and those under major threat are protected as a matter of global urgency. Lend your support to organisations behind this cause like African Parks and Elephants Without Borders and also those leading the fight to stop the poaching on the ground with anti-poaching teams like the Big Life Foundation. Stopping the demand for ivory remains key to ensuring that elephants have a future. Get behind organisations like WildAid, a partner of our awareness campaign Let Elephants Be Elephants in Asia. This is going to be a joint effort so get on board!
Names like Ngorongoro and Serengeti are world famous, and recently on a journey there with 9 lovely folks from Singapore, I got the chance to see why. The northern part of Tanzania is part of the Greater Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, so if you’ve been to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, that’s just over the border from where this safari took place.
The Serengeti really does have to be seen to be believed. I think we did have unbelievably good luck to see a rare female black-rhino and calf in the scrub, but relatively out in the open, but when on the same afternoon, a young male leopard crawled out of his resting place up high in a tree at sunset and proceeded to walk in front of our open Land Cruiser, I just about fell out of the car. Leopards are always elusive and when you get to see one up close, it’s really something special. And this fellow was posing on a boulder like he was on Australia’s Got Talent!
But I’m jumping ahead. First we visited Ngorongoro, the famous conservation area, which is actually a huge volcanic caldera surrounded by mountains. It’s not a huge area to cross, and you can cover much of it in a day. The main feature of course is vast grasslands on which live thousands of white-bearded wildebeests and common zebras, along with both Grants and Thomsons gazelles, warthogs and Cape Buffaloes. Elephants live in the woodlands near the mountains, and move across the grasslands.
Set against the backdrop of the white salt pan, which at the time of our visit contained hundreds of bright pink flamingoes, the sheer number of animals in every direction is just spectacular. This is a public park of course, so you have to expect lots of other vehicles when you find the lions mating (which we did – about 20 of them lined up to watch the very fleeting act of feline ooh-lala). But here we also saw something you don’t see very often, a spotted hyaena making a kill of a young wildebeest right in front of the vehicle!
We stayed at the brand new Asilia Africa camp, The Highlands, which is 100% solar powered and has just been described by Forbes magazine as the coolest and most eco-friendly camp in Africa. I have to agree – it’s a beautiful camp and the rooms with their architecturally designed shapes and inside fire places are just gorgeous. The view of the surrounding mountains is spectacular. This camp is an alternative to the main lodges at Ngorongoro that offers privacy and something a little bit different, and best of all, it’s a community partnership with the local Maasai, so every night you stay gives back directly to the local people.
It’s a wonderful experience to visit the local Maasai village while you’re staying there (a truly authentic experience, away from the main tourist throngs). A warning though, it is very cold at The Highlands in winter so you really do need to bring your winter woollies! Also at 7500 feet, most people do feel some effects from the altitude (most commonly being a bit short of breath when walking).
Next it was onto the Serengeti and a 3 night stay at Asilia’s gorgeous Sayari Camp. For me and my group this was the highlight. On our first afternoon it was the rhinos and the leopard. The next day it was what we had come there to see, the Great Migration, and in particular the crossings of the wildebeest over the Mara River. We were not disappointed. The photos don’t do it justice. It was drama, tension and adrenaline. I swore out loud on more than one occasion as a young wildebeest drifted down river past the bloated corpses of dozens of wildebeest that didn’t make it, while vultures and marabou storks pierced their stinking bodies with sharp beaks. It took some time before the wildebeest decided to actually cross, as if they knew the danger involved, and more than once we watched them turn back, and then return to the river, in what seemed to me a game of follow the leader, even though it was never clear who was in charge of that decision. When they finally did cross, those who made it had to scramble up the steep bank on the other side, over the bodies of many wildebeest that had already perished or become paralysed. If the crocodiles were there, they were nowhere to be seen, clearly satiated and feeling far too full to eat another wildebeest (we all know that feeling after Christmas dinner). Everyone in my group was mesmerised and I think also a little overwhelmed by all the casualties. Everyone cheered each time a young wildebeest made it out of the river. You can’t help getting caught up in it all.
The days that followed brought more and more animals – elephants, lions in huge prides (these are the best studied lions in Africa), impalas, topi, hippos, cheetahs…. By night, the noises of animals wandering through camp made it disappointing to fall asleep – hyaenas, zebras, hippos and wildebeest sounds all rang out through the evening. By the last day of the safari, my group all said they couldn’t ask for more. One decided to sit by the pool, and let me tell you, that doesn’t happen often in a week long safari! Usually there is just one more thing you want to see…. And of course there is always more to see because Africa always surprises you, just when you think you’ve seen it all. On our last morning, a few of us who went out got to see two gorgeous little lion cubs, part of a pride of 24, and then a lioness scaled a tree, something I’ve heard about that happens in this part of the world but had never seen. Usually lions don’t climb trees, but some of the lions in Tanzania have developed this habit.
I can’t wait to go back to Tanzania again. It was simply out of this world. If you’d like to join me on my safari there next August, I have only got 2 places left. Get in touch now if you want to experience this once in a lifetime journey!
More details on my safari to Tanzania are available here. Please note that my Rwanda journey for 2017, trekking with mountain gorillas is now sold out as these book out over a year in advance, but I still have one room available for 2 people sharing for Tanzania.
Announcing my Botswana safari for 2017 is now available for you to join! This is an exclusive safari for just 8 people with me, combining the World Heritage wetlands and wildlife fiesta of the Okavango Delta, the elephant-rich woodlands of the Khwai region and the Makgadigadi Pan among the San Bushmen. It’s 7 nights in one of the world’s last great wildernesses and a safari not to be missed if you love animals and Africa at its wildest!
As with all my safaris, we’ve focused on ethical safari camps that make a difference, but also keeping to the highest standard, especially when it comes to the wildlife experience. On my last Botswana safari, my group were blown away by how much wildlife we saw at close range, including lion after lion after lion, tonnes of elephants (Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa), spotted hyaena pups at a den, African wild dogs stalking a giraffe, cheetah, baby impalas…. We were there then in the low season (green season) but this time we’re going just after the Okavango floods so we will see the wetlands in all their glory! Take a look at the amazing shots from my 2014 safari to Botswana here. As with all the safaris I personally lead, I’ll be talking through the animal behaviours and conservation issues as we go along, and there are always great conversations by the campfire after a day out in the bush.
Here’s the itinerary for June 2017:
You will make your way from wherever you are in the world to Maun, Botswana, where the safari starts and ends. International flights are not included in the price, but all internal flights and transfers from the start of the safari in Maun to the end in Maun are included, as are all activities, meals, drinks, conservation and park fees.
June 16: Light aircraft charter to Khwai area, staying at the community-owned Khwai Camp for 2 nights among the elephants in the mopane woodlands. (NB. This camp has just changed hands so the new website is coming soon, but for those in the know it was previously on my itinerary in 2014. For full details of the camp, contact me for the itinerary. Suffice to say it is in awesome part of the Okavango with tonnes of elephants!!)
June 18: Light aircraft charter from Khwai area to Pelo Camp for 2 nights, to experience the wetlands for which the Okavango is famous. Here we will try out a mokoro (wooden dugout canoe) to see the wildlife up close on the water.
June 20: Light aircraft charter from Pelo Camp to Maun, followed by 1 hour road transfer to Meno a Kwena Camp, where we will overnight for 3 nights. Experience traditional life on a walk with the Bushmen, watch the elephants and other wildlife drinking at the river in front of camp (including at a floating hide on the Boteti River!), and see desert-adapted wildlife in the Makgadigadi Pans National Park or the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, both within easy reach of the camp. We can even do a sleep out on bedrolls in the park if you like! Click here for more on Meno a Kwena Camp & activities.
June 23: Return to Maun by 1 hour road transfer for your international flight out.
Only 8 people can come on this safari with me as I am limited by room availability, so please register your interest ASAP!
Price is US$5900/person sharing. The price goes down to US$5750/person if you bring a friend to share your room! Note this includes almost everything other than your international flights. You will need to keep some money aside for souvenirs and tips, but there are no visa entry fees for Botswana. Single supplement for those who want their own room is possible.
What more could you want from an African safari? I’d love to have you along with me on this magical journey into the heartland of Africa’s elephants, Botswana, in June 2017. Contact me for the full itinerary now and register your interest!
Today to commemorate World Elephant Day, here’s a few of my favourite elephant photos in celebration of this amazing animal… In about a week’s time I’m going to be announcing my next safari in Africa – and it’s in the home of the world’s largest population of elephants…. Can you guess where it might be?
Now I’m off to the Serengeti to see if I can find some elephants to celebrate in person…. Apparently there’s the odd wildebeest and zebra come to town too for one of the biggest migrations on the planet. Back real soon…. Happy World Elephant Day! Share this with someone else who loves elephants.
Years ago when I first moved to Namibia to start my PhD on the black-faced impala at the age of about 21, a couple of Aussies and a German who were working there at the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia adopted me and helped me find my feet in this unique desert land where I didn’t know a soul. The war vet invasions had just started in Zimbabwe, and, well, if you’ve read my first book “Dry Water” you’ll know the rest of the story! Over a decade later, two of my early rescuers, fellow Aussie Dr Julian Fennessy and his wife, German Steph Fennessy, are living in Windhoek and raising their two kids in Namibia whilst also working on giraffe conservation across the continent. Together Julian and Steph started and run the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the world’s first and only organisation dedicated to giraffe conservation in the wild.
Julian is a true giraffe guru. He is the founder and co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group and completed his PhD on Namibia’s desert-dwelling giraffes. You won’t meet a couple more dedicated to the conservation of giraffes in the wild. There are few species more iconic and representative of Africa than giraffes, and I’ve seen them pretty much everywhere I’ve ever travelled in Africa, so why are folks like Julian and Steph worried about their future?
How many species and subspecies of giraffes are there? And what countries are they found in?
What is the status of giraffes in the wild? Should we be concerned about them becoming extinct?
As a species, giraffe are currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List – however, this is more as a result of no recent assessment being undertaken on them. In 2008 and 2010 the West African (G. c. peralta) and Rothschild’s (G. c. rothschildi) subspecies of giraffe were listed as ‘Endangered’ – based on the work of GCF, and currently the species and all subspecies are being assessed by the Specialist Group – the first-ever detailed assessment for giraffe and we hope to complete this by early 2016. We obviously feel that giraffe need more attention locally and internationally as – and why? West African giraffe number less than 400 in the wild, Rothschild’s giraffe approx 1,100 and Kordofan giraffe less than 2,000 individuals. Few know that giraffe number less than 80,000 in the wild (less than 5 times the amount of African elephant) and have dropped greater than 40% in the last 15 years alone!
Tell us more about the threats to giraffes and what can be done about them. Specifically can you tell us what GCF is working on to conserve giraffes in the wild?
When we set up GCF in 2009 we realised that no one was giving giraffe any real attention – the Forgotten Giant! Everyone assumed that giraffe are everywhere – and on some safaris it feels like that – however, the more and more we look into the situation the more precarious the situation is. The usual suspects – habitat loss and fragmentation, combined with human population growth and demand for increased resources and agricultural land is big. Combine this with illegal hunting (poaching) and giraffe are seriously being threatened across much of Central and northern East Africa. Over the last few years GCF realised it cannot do everything itself and as such has built (and keeps on doing so) a network of conservation partners across areas to help save giraffe. Whether it is supporting de-snaring initiatives and monitoring in Zambia or Uganda, assisting to draft the first-ever national giraffe strategies in Niger and Kenya, or understanding giraffe skin disease across the continent…and much more, GCF is looking at initiatives based on partnerships and collaborations – we can only truly find solutions by working together.
What started your passion for giraffes? And what keeps you going now?
Working in north-west Namibia on a project looking at the interactions between people, water, livestock and wildlife, l was keen to become an elephant researcher – who wouldn’t?! After looking at giraffe in the desert, walking up, down and around one of the most arid environments and in the oldest desert in the world – l was amazed to read the lack of work done on giraffe across the continent. Beyond surprising. So from there l thought l can’t be wrong and although l worked for the next 15 years, spare time and holidays spent dedicated to finding out more about giraffe, supporting government and NGO giraffe initiatives, and importantly sharing as much information as possible about giraffe to the world.
What’s the most fascinating experience you’ve ever had with a giraffe? Or is there more than one?!
Every experience with giraffe has been amazing. Planning and undertaking the first-ever GPS satellite collaring of giraffe in northwest Namibia was special whilst recently traveling to Garamba NP in the DRC to provide advice on how to save the last 30-40 giraffe in the country really emphasises why we all do conservation. Unfortunately l do not get to spend day-to-day close to giraffe like our zookeeper colleagues, but the knowledge that giraffe still live across the continent and in many areas in and amongst people is even more special than a personal experience.
What can people do to help giraffe conservation in the wild?
Those lucky enough to be joining me on my safari to Namibia in September this year will get to spend some time with Julian as he’ll be meeting us in Windhoek and giving us a talk about giraffes and his work. To register your interest in my conservation-focused safaris in Africa, please drop me a line here. My 2015 Namibian safari is full, but I’m currently filling a safari for North West Namibia in May 2016 that includes these dramatic landscapes where Julian works, so contact me if you’d like to join. To make a donation to the important work of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, click here.
There are some parts of Africa that remove you so completely from reality that you start to wonder whether all that stuff that fills your life with worries in the ‘outside’ world really matters much. Serra Cafema Camp, in the Marienfluss Conservancy, is such a place, where traditional Himba people still live a life that is much like what it was several hundred years ago, where a river teeming with crocodiles slices through gothic mountains surrounded by sand dunes, where you can really find yourself by losing yourself in landscapes so primitive you can’t help but feel humbled. There’s no phone range or wifi up here so you can leave all that behind. And you know what – you probably won’t miss it one bit. It’s all about disconnecting to reconnect, as Wilderness Safaris puts it. This is the ultimate escape and a huge adventure.
Here’s my photos of one of my favourite parts of truly wild Africa, our escape to the most remote part of the land that God forgot, as promised in last week’s blog.
How does one summarise a week in Namibia’s rugged Kunene region, one of the wildest parts of Africa? It was just one wow moment after another! There was the cheetah mother with two cubs who killed a springbok male in the dry Hoanib River bed, the chameleon laying eggs at the Skeleton Coast, the drive through the dunes to the violent Atlantic Ocean where hundreds of seals frolicked in the crashing waves, meeting the traditional Himbas in Marienfluss Conservancy and of course, the desert lions (with cubs!) and desert-dwelling elephants…. And then there is those epic landscapes, so huge and awe-inspiring that you feel so small and incredibly humbled by it all.
It’s hard to sum up north west Namibia in one blog because it’s so much more than a holiday – it’s a life changing experience and a grand adventure! I think the photos tell the story so let’s start with that…. This week I’m sharing a few of my pictures from the Hoanib River and Skeleton Coast. Next week stay tuned for photos from Serra Cafema in the Marienfluss Conservancy, home to the Himba people. Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp is a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and local people in three conservancies, Sesfontein, Anabeb and Torra. Matson & Ridley Safaris also made a donation to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation from this safari. I want to thank Helen, Chuan Fong, Patricia, Maggie, Jo, Leonie, Tristan and Carina for being such intrepid desert adventurers and great company, and I really hope we meet again by the campfire soon.
It’s been a while coming, but much goes on behind the scenes when it comes to developing awareness programs for species like elephants and rhinos in Asia. Those of you who know me personally know that the awareness raising never stops when it comes to elephants and the ivory trade. Last week, my conservation safari group of Singaporeans, British and Aussies talked at length about conservation and what still needs to be done while deep in the desert dunes of the Skeleton Coast, inspired by the arid-adapted wildlife of Namibia and those magnificent desert-dwelling elephants. Next week I’ll be in Brisbane talking to about 200 Queensland business women at the Australian Women in Leadership symposium about what we can learn from elephants about leadership (and of course, how we can help the elephants too). Even though we’ve made good headway lately, we can’t afford to lose momentum and we need you to keep spreading the word too.
I’ve spent much time thinking about and talking to others in the know about how to have the most meaningful impact for this cause in the last year. Sometimes it’s more impactful to team up with other organisations that are getting results than to go it alone. I’m very excited to say that the Let Elephants Be Elephants campaign (LEBE) is now teaming up with global wildlife trade organisation WildAid and the Thai soccer team, known as the ‘War Elephants’, to raise awareness of the illegal ivory trade in Thailand.
If you’ve signed the pledge to say no to ivory at the LEBE website, you will have received our latest newsletter today announcing this new partnership. Just in case you missed it, here it is below as well. The ads will be released in the coming months and spread across Thailand, so please help us spread the word by sharing our posts on the campaign in your social media networks.
My 2016 and 2017 safaris are filling up fast! But it’s not too late to grab a last minute place if you get in quick.
ZIMBABWE 2016 – ONLY ONE ROOM LEFT!
I have one room left for my northern Zimbabwe journey from 23-30 September this year. That means two people sharing, so grab a friend and come along! This is the last room left for my safaris this year! I absolutely love this part of Zimbabwe and the people. We’ll be visiting Mana Pools, Hwange National Park and the legendary Victoria Falls, staying in private exclusive concessions to ensure the experience is second to none. I’ll be arranging local experts to talk to us about research and conservation work being done in these areas, and you’ll come home with a unique insight into this magnificent country. Zim to me is all about being among friendly people, big rivers and lots and lots of wildlife. Read more about the safari here. Contact me for the full itinerary. Maximum of 9 people on this trip. If you’ve been deliberating don’t wait any longer to sign up!
RWANDA & TANZANIA 2017 – ONE ROOM LEFT!
I have only 2 spots left for both my gorilla trekking adventure in Rwanda and the following safari into the magnificent Serengeti in Tanzania left for two very lucky people! I am doing these two safaris back to back from 7 August 2017, first 5 nights in Rwanda, then 6 nights in Tanzania. Read more here. We are staying at the best camps in the best private areas, showcasing the wildebeest migration at the best time of year! I’ve hand picked all my camps as always to ensure we have an outstanding experience but also to make the maximum contribution back to local communities and conservation. My Rwanda safari will have a maximum of 8 people, and Tanzania up to 9. If you’ve ever dreamed of trekking with gorillas or experiencing the Serengeti, here’s your chance to do it with a small group of wildlife-loving people and your own personal zoologist!
Where do YOU want to go on safari next? Leave a comment here with your dream destinations in Africa and let’s see if we can make a group trip happen!
My last post about the state of African elephant poaching discussed the latest CITES report showing that less elephants are now being poached now than during the poaching peak in 2007, but also highlighted the fact that while some countries are doing better in terms of poaching (e.g. Kenya), others are still in big trouble and it’s no time to be complacent. Overall, there are still more elephants being poached than there are being born. Tanzania’s elephant population has taken a big hit and remains under serious threat for the ivory trade.
The shooting of British helicopter pilot, Roger Gower, by poachers in Tanzania, as the 37 year old man was conducting anti-poaching patrols over Maswa Game Reserve, shocked the world. This terrible loss of yet another person fighting against poaching is the tip of the iceberg of what’s been happening in this country over the past five years. Tanzania has lost more than half of its elephant population to poachers for ivory in the last 5 years, now estimated to be about 43,000, down from 109,000 in 2009, with Selous-Mikumi, Ruaha-Rungwa and Malagarasi Muyowosi ecosystems believed to have taken the biggest hits. That is TENS of THOUSANDS of elephants killed for ivory in a very short time, an appalling loss from a country that once boasted huge populations.
Globally, dozens of anti-poaching rangers die in the course of duty every year. We are losing too many people and too many elephants because of the ivory trade in numbers that are just not acceptable.
What is being done to turn the sheer scale of the poaching around in Tanzania? Since November last year, the country now has a new President, John Magufuli, who appears to be on a mission to root out corruption in general across Tanzania, and has appointed a task force to deal with the problem. We have seen some high profile arrests in recent months, including that of Chinese national Yang Geng Glan, the ‘ivory queen’, suspected of exporting thousands of tonnes of ivory to China, along with 1000 arrests since the formation of the task force. Tanzanian authorities say the poaching ring that killed Roger Gower has now been dismantled. As this blog goes out, 2 Chinese nationals have just been sentenced to 35 years jail for illegal possession of ivory and corrupt transactions.
It’s no small undertaking getting on top of a poaching problem that has become so endemic, rooted in corruption and greed. A good friend of mine from back in my past Namibian life, Aaron Nicholas, is on the ground in Ruaha, Tanzania, working as Program Director of the Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. I asked him for an update on what’s been going on with Ruaha’s elephants and for his expert insights into this problem.
Aaron, we’ve heard a lot of disturbing reports coming out of Tanzania. What is the future looking like for the country’s elephants, and in particular for those you’re focused on in Ruaha?
These are challenging times for Tanzania’s elephants for sure. The world has heard about the dramatic declines in elephant numbers in key elephant habitat such as the Selous Game Reserve and more recently the Ruaha-Rungwa landscape – the Selous population for example plummeted from around 35,000 in 2009 to around 13,000 by 2014, a staggering 66% loss, and although there is evidence to suggest the population is stabilizing there, poaching pressure continues to shift and the overall situation in Tanzania remains critical with the total elephant population presently standing at around 50,000, down from 109,000 in 2009.
It’s not all negatives. Landscapes in the north, where tourism is some ten times more buoyant than in the south have faired better and there is actually evidence of continued elephant population growth in places like the Serengeti and Tarangire. In the south however, elephants are still facing significant poaching pressure and this is where we are focusing our support to government and local communities.
What is WCS doing to try and combat the problem, and are you seeing results?
WCS has a long-standing presence and relationship with government here, having been present in Tanzania for the best part of 50 years. We have 5 well-established programs in Tanzania ranging from marine and coastal forest management to highland forest protection as well as Africa’s second longest running elephant monitoring program centered on Tarangire National Park.
Over the last 10 years or so we have focused in our area especially on building community engagement in wildlife conservation through the Wildlife Management Area approach- Tanzania’s take on Campfire, which is aimed at empowering communities to manage their wildlife and natural resources sustainably. In 2013 we made a commitment to partner with government to strengthen law enforcement efforts linked to elephant protection- this was the genesis of the Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program, focused on East Africa’s largest remaining elephant population within this 115,000km2 landscape (almost twice the size of Tasmania).
We work with different wildlife authorities, establishing and strengthening capacities that have an immediate impact on poaching – for example, we have established a detection dog unit based in Ruaha National Park (they are just going operational now and will sniff out illegal cashes of ivory, arms and ammunition); trained more than 200 park rangers in law enforcement monitoring using a system called SMART and are deploying a specially equipped Cessna 206 in support of monitoring and coordination of field efforts. We support community wildlife scouts and are also planning advanced training for rangers and wildlife officers and working with other partners, especially the U.S. Government, to tackle the poachers head on.
There are signs that poaching is reducing in some key areas, but we will only be able to confirm this with certainty as these efforts continue to be embedded and our monitoring programs feed back results. Government is also stepping up, more rangers are being posted and just last week news came out that a special national anti-poaching unit will be constituted. We are starting to read about significant sentences being passed for ivory traffickers too with a number of individuals having been sentenced to 20 years of late for their involvement in the ivory trade. Above all, there are high expectations that President Magufuli will deliver on his anti corruption agenda within the wildlife sector as well.
What does a day’s work typically look like for you? (Many of my readers are aspiring conservationists and you are living their ‘dream job’!)
It’s mainly about coordination- ensuring that the 20 or so staff we have are able to deliver on their various roles, working with communities, wildlife authorities and other partners to strengthen capacities, engagement and commitment and ensuring that each of our teams efforts have as much multiplier effect as possible.
We have staff who engage with 46 or so communities within 4 Wildlife Management Areas, building the capacity of management authorities and helping establish effective governance and opportunities to derive natural resource based investment and benefits. Other staff liaise with national park, game reserve and Wildlife Management Area rangers as well as other law enforcement authorities- for example to ensure the detection dog unit can be effectively deployed. We also have ecologists who track wildlife trends, support wild dog and vulture monitoring and other important survey work. It’s an interesting and varied mixed bag!
I personally spend a lot of time coordinating our work with various partners and other agencies including USAID and the U.S. Embassy in particular who channel various forms of assistance to the field based on the various U.S. commitments to combatting wildlife trafficking. When I can I get into the field to maintain a sense of where we are with our efforts and once our Cessna 206 arrives I will take advantage of that key tool to get airborne regularly as well to visit all parts of this huge area. Being around elephants on the ground keeps you grounded too and there’s nothing I like more than grabbing a few hours sitting under a baobab and being awed by some pachyderm presence!
Can you tell us about any stories from the field that you’ve personally experienced that could give us a sense of what it’s like there on the ground?
I’ve had my fair share of close calls with poachers over the years and I’m pleased in many ways to be one step removed these days. To do this job though under these circumstances, it’s critical to have the experience of having been at the sharp end of things- rangers are the bedrock of protection activities and their daily commitment to this dangerous work can never be taken for granted.
Field conditions in our landscape can be very challenging in the wet season in particular, especially in the game reserves where sufficient resources to maintain an effective patrol presence are often lacking. We recently helped rangers in Rungwa game reserve re-establish year round presence in a strategically placed ranger post that has been abandoned for more than 10 years through the provision of transport and other essential field equipment and are also working with the U.S. Government to re-establish an effective radio system – these are the kind of practical actions that patrol teams need.
Having worked in conservation other countries like Namibia and Cameroon, you have a good perspective on the future of wildlife in Africa. How do you feel about this, given the Africa’s population is predicted to double by 205, and soar to over 11 billion by 2100. What gives you hope?
Population growth is certainly the biggest long-term challenge and we should certainly all be promoting family planning that’s for sure!
I take heart in that our landscape has relatively low population densities in many areas and issues of habitat connectivity for species such as elephants are certainly aspects that we can still achieve a great deal with. We are currently engaged in a process of working with key stakeholders to define and manage what would be East Africa’s most significant elephant corridor, connecting core elephant populations in the east and west of our landscape- these are the kind of initiatives that deserve as much effort as possible against the backdrop of increasing human populations and land-use change.
We hear a lot about the Serengeti and how amazing it is a tourist destination, famed for its migration of plains species. I personally have always wanted to go there and will be taking a group of travellers there with me in August 2017. Tell us a little about this part of the world.
An iconic globally recognized landscape that is guaranteed to connect you to Africa and its wildlife. Loose yourself in the endless horizons, soak up the wildlife dramas all around and remind yourself of the importance of thinking big to achieve meaningful conservation!