Serengeti. President John Magufuli’s declaration of an all-out war on poachers last year is beginning to show positive results, with the latest official reports suggesting a significant decline in numbers of poaching incidents.
Statistics released by the Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa) covering a two-year period in the 16 national parks show that poaching incidents have declined nearly four times from 8,631 in 2014/15 to 2,179 in December last year.
But the most significant record is the threefold decrease that was recorded in 2015/16 in all the national parks with the exception of Rubondo, Saadani, Kitulo and Mkomazi.
Prof Alexander Songoro, director of the Wildlife Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, says political will has played a big role in what he describes as a major achievement.
“These achievements are due to the real determination of the government to get rid of poaching, implement the 2014/19 programme on fighting poaching, to enhance cooperation among neighbouring countries to fight poaching, the signing of various international agreements, which, among other things, control the ivory business,” says Prof Songoro.
An investigation by The Citizen into the national parks of Serengeti and Manyara has revealed that some people have stopped poaching in fear of being caught by a task force deployed to fight poaching.
Besides that, authorities say the decline in poaching was due to the application of a new system of encountering the illegal practice called “five steps”, which, among its methods, is to dismantle the network of money launderers paying poachers.
The decline in the poaching incidents comes as a huge relief to conservationists in the country and beyond who had lost hope in winning the battle against well-funded criminal syndicates with international links. In recent years, the threat of the extinction of rare animal species, including black elephants and rhinos. had become a reality for Tanzania.
Last October, President Magufuli ordered the security forces to go after top criminals financing organised networks behind elephant poaching, saying no one was “untouchable”.
In recent years, Tanzania has not been spared as well-armed criminal gangs moved across the continent killing elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns that are often shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
According to a 2015 census, the country’s elephant population shrank from 110,000 in 2009 to around 43,000 in 2014. Conservationists blame the decline on “industrial-scale” poaching.
There are also far fewer rhinos and they are endangered.
Amid the alarming statistics, President Magufuli appointed Major General Gaudence Milanzi Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism as he spelt out new terms in the war on poaching.
He later visited ministry headquarters in Dar es Salaam, where he saw 50 tusks seized from poachers, and pledged to continue supporting the work of the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU) to fight elephant poaching.
The NTSCIU anti-poaching team is comprised of officials from the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Service, police, army, immigration, judiciary and the national wildlife service.
The team is credited with the arrest of more than 870 poachers and illegal ivory traders and the seizure of over 300 firearms over the past few years.
“I am behind you ... arrest all those involved in this illicit trade, no one should be spared regardless of his position, age, religion ... or popularity,” Dr Magufuli said.
Prof Songoro says the task force deployed to fight poaching arrested 5,752 poachers from 2013 to 2016 and within that period, 2,338 cases were taken to court.
At least 4,274 pieces of ivoty, weighing 12,333 kilos, on average 1,430 pieces, were seized in the same period.
Statistics show that the worst year was 2013/14 during which a consignment of 2,733 pieces of ivory was seized from 1,298 suspects.
The arrest of the suspects was not easy. Many of the poachers used heavy weapons that killed easily big animals like elephants with a single shot, officials say.
In clashes with the poachers, the government managed to seize 399 firearms, 382 ammunition with two magazines of an SMG. Besides that, it seized 67 traditional weapons and other government trophies, including 3.7 tonnes of game meat.
Still face huge risk
But, despite the decline in poaching in the 16 national parks, the Tanapa statistics indicate that five parks still face a huge risk from poachers. These include the famous Serengeti, which is packed with wildlife and Africa’s highest mountain Kilimanjaro, and plays a significant role in boosting revenues from tourism and safaris.
Statistics indicate that between July and December, last year, the Serengeti was the most attacked by poachers. At least 570 incidents were recorded in the park, followed by Rubondo that suffered 391 poaching incidents.
Still, the rate of poaching in the Serengeti is four times lower than it was in 2014/15, when 2,272 poaching incidents were reported.
Acting Tanapa director Mtango Mtaiko says while the Serengeti has suffered the worst, the situation is significantly improving.
And there are also positive reports from the Saanane, which was established recently, and has never recorded a single poaching incident.
“Saanane and Gombe national parks are much safer, partly because it’s hard for poachers to enter the islands for their crime, unlike the Serengeti that is surrounded by communities,” says Mr Mtaiko.
In the Gombe National Park, nationals from neighbouring countries are also reportedly committing petty crimes, including illegal fishing and felling of trees.
Mr William Mwakilema, a conservationist, says one of the strategies that have helped fight poaching is the formation of a joint team involving police from the Director of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and a special force from the intelligence.
“We have done a good job to control poaching, and there has been cooperation from Kenyan officers in the Masai Mara Park and other areas, ” he says.
In the Manyara National Park, our writer witnessed officers patrolling in turns to ensure poachers had no chance day and night.
They are also reaching out to former poachers who now provide them with useful information on how gangs operate.
Dr Noelia Myonga, chief conservationist in the Manyara National Park, says they have created a database of former poachers, some of who have been helpful in the arrests made.
Local communities have also been assisting in the ant-poaching drive after awareness campaigns, according to Dr Myonga. “We are cooperating with other institutions as well, like the Frankfurt Zoological Society.”
A new approach
Mr Elisante Ayoub, head of the security department of the Manyara National Park, says they have adopted new ways in fighting poaching -- and the results have been good.
He notes: “Previously, when we arrested a poacher, we would drag him or her straight to court. But now we make legal efforts to gather intelligence from them on their networks.”
This is part of the new five-step approach adopted last July to improve the war against poaching.
In the first step, the team targets culprits in local communities and national park officials colluding with poachers.
In the second, they identify and arrest those illegally hunting wild animal in the parks.
The third step targets smugglers and brokers.
In the fourth, the aim is those empowering the network of poaching, those in direct communication with schemers, also known as facilitators of poaching.
“The last step involves a group that incorporates money launders communicating with agents outside the country, financers of criminal cartels and those receiving instructions from outside the country,” Mr Ayoub says.
According the assistant director of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr Robert Mande, the new system is still in the infancy stage. But it’s already being used in nine zones across the country, including the ecological areas of Serengeti, Tarangire, Manyara and Ngorongoro.
The other ecological areas are Mt Kilimanjaro, Mkomazi, Ruaha/Rungwa, Selous South and Selous North, Moyowosi, Katavi, Burigi, Biharamro and Ibanda.
“In these nine ecological areas, Selous South leads in poaching incidents, and the areas with the lowest incidents of poaching are Tarangire, Manyara and Ngorongoro, where the fifth step programme started,” says Mr Mande.
Between August 2016 and January, this year, he said, 906 poachers were identified and 310 arrested through that method.
The system was piloted in the Tokomeza operation in 2013, but while the government said it was very successful in fighting poachers, many stakeholders expresssed concerns over the manner in which it was carried out.
Nevertheless, stakeholders are generally satisfied with the progress that has been made in poaching war.
Dr Alfred Kikoti, director of the Tanzania Elephant Centre (TEC), says in the past years poaching had become a major crisis.
Dr Asantaeli Merita, a manager with Research and Ecological Development in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), says going forward, there is need to raise awareness among Tanzanians on the importance of helping the government stop poachers in their tracks.
“However, we congratulate President Magufuli for his resolve to not spare anyone in fighting poachers. We have attained a lot,” Mr Mande says.