Dar es Salaam. Anti-poaching efforts took a positive turn in Selous Game Reserve last month after experts started to fix elephants with a Global positioning System (GPS) collars.
Dr Edward Kohi from Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (Tawiri), who coordinates the project, says they intend to collar about 60 elephants in Selous over a period of few months.
“This will enable us to closely follow the jumbos and monitor their movements. We will be able to immediately detect if anything happens to groups which we have collared,” says Dr Kohi.
In a pilot project conducted last month a total of five elephants were fixed with the GPS fitted collars. Dr Kohi says that was just a beginning and the work will continue this year with general purpose of safeguarding elephants in Selous Game Reserve who, in recent decades, have been prone to poaching.
According to Dr Kohi, exercise of putting a GPS fitted collar around a huge animal like an elephant is risk one.
“Because you cannot approach it as it is, first you need to put the elephant to sleep. This involves injecting it with a sleeping drugs stored in a dart like syringe which is fired using a special gun,” he says. “But first, you have to locate a group of elephants and identify its leader, which is also a challenge in Selous because most of the jumbos in Selous live under cover of heavy forests.”
After the elephant has been put down, experts start the task of putting the collar and taking other facts and information involving the elephant.
“Usually, we use that opportunity to gather some facts about elephants such as its measurements, measurements of the tusks and other particulars which helps us in wildlife activities,” he says adding:
“For elephants who live in open land it is not hard to locate and put them down. But for Selous elephants it is a bit difficulty because they live in forests. Infrastructure is also not good… generally, there are unfriendly environment in Selous for this work but it will be done as we are determined to do it.”
He adds: “In some cases the elephants are mixed with other animals so you have to chase other animals in order to isolate the elephant which you target. This is also risk and costly undertaking.”
While in December they used a small plane to locate the jumbos, and then drive to the location, when the exercise resumes, Dr Kohi says, they will use helicopters, which makes it easy to spot the elephants and land near them.
Each of the GPS collars costs around $6,000, Dr Kohi says noting that is besides other costs incurred during the exercise.
The exercise has been financed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Mr Asajile Kajuni from WWF Tanzania Office, says the exercise is very important for the nation as it is one sure way of containing poaching, which for years has been a serious problem in SGR.
“Because we don’t have enough rangers to protect all elephants in Selous, collaring them (elephants) is the best way of monitoring their movements,” he says.
Mr Kajuni says through the recent exercise, they have pinpointed shortcomings and other challenges which they are going to work on so as to ensure operations in the future.
“We now know that Selous elephants mainly live in forests, therefore, we should be prepared to deal with that fact. We also know that infrastructure, mainly roads in Selous are impassable during rainy season,” he says.
Mr Kajuni notes that the lessons they have learnt during December exercise will enable them prepare well for the main part of the activity.
The GPS collar
Explaining on how the technology works, Dr Kohi says the GPS in the collar communicate with a satellite and the communication is relayed to the monitors.
“This way, we can monitor movements and activities of an elephants in real time around the clock,” he says.
This enables tracking of the elephants in many ways, says Dr Kohi. Elaborating, he says when the elephant stops moving it is great indication that it might have been killed. Or, when it moves slowly, there is great possibility that it has been injured.
“In all these circumstances, we can move quickly to save the jumbo. Or sometimes you might see it going towards a dangerous area. We can move in are redirect it,” he says.
Elephant collaring has been going on in some game reserves and national parks but SGR. Given the seriousness of poaching, experts have also decided to go to Selous.
In mid 2016 a warning was issued which jolted the world. According to studies which were conducted by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) whose findings pointed to the fact that one of Africa’s oldest reserves, Selous game Reserve (SGR), could see its elephant population decimated by 2022. This is if urgent measures are not taken to stem industrial-scale poaching.
Though it was known that SGR elephant population has diminished due to poaching, but the revelation was shocking provided that there were already efforts to save Selous elephants.
Selous Game Reserve, the country’s largest protected area, was once a home to one of the greatest concentrations of African elephants on the continent, but rampant ivory poaching has seen the population reduced by 90 per cent in fewer than 40 years. Nearly 110,000 elephants once roamed the savannahs, wetlands and forests of Selous, but their number was about 20,000 in 2016.
The study was conducted on behalf of WWF by Dalberg Global Development Advisors. Among other things, it pointed to serious negative effect on Tanzania’s nature based economy, if no intervention was introduced to save the jumbos. On the other hand, livelihoods of 1.2 million people would be put t risk.
Travel and tourism in Selous generate $6 million annually and the industry represents a combined yearly contribution of $5 billion to the national Gross Domestic product (GDP).
Given its wealth in nature, Selous was given by UNESCO status of the World Heritage Site. However, in 2014, UNESCO placed Selous on its List of World Heritage in Danger due to, among other things, the severity of elephant poaching.
It reached a point where an average of six elephants were being gunned down by criminal syndicates each day in Selous.
“Selous is the only natural World Heritage site in southern Tanzania and one of the largest wilderness areas left in Africa. Its value to Tanzania - and indeed to the rest of the world - is dependent on its large wildlife populations and pristine ecosystems,” said WWF-Tanzania Country Director Amani Ngusaru, when he was interviewed after the results were released.