by Mark Gillies
Are there any left?
This is the question that all who value the elephants of Tanzania will find themselves asking in the coming years if no concerted effort is made to tackle successfully the systematic slaughter currently affecting this most charismatic of species.
On 1st June, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism in Tanzania officially released the results of a nationwide survey of the elephant population, which estimates that there are between 40,400 and 46,600 elephants remaining. This represents a decline of 60% since the last census in 2009.
This authoritative study, funded by Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and conducted in conjunction with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, included all of the seven key ecosystems where elephant have traditionally be found in large numbers.
The decline in elephant numbers in the Selous has been well documented before now, with the historic low point being recorded in 2013 at 13,084. Happily, in 2014, the number was up slightly to 15,217, but, as Rob Muir, the Africa Programme Director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society is quoted as saying in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 19 July, this is probably due to the fact that their numbers have reached ‘a critical threshold’ and are so low that the poachers are unable to find them as easily as had been the case.
Alarmingly, this raises the spectre of the poachers turning their attention to other locations with high populations – and the statistics bear this out. The 2014 census showed the other areas most hard hit to be the Malagarasi-Muyovozi and Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystems, where the populations were down 81% and 76% respectively.
Such statistics should prompt politicians into concerted action if they are to safeguard both Tanzania’s natural resources and the long term future of a tourism industry that depends upon the elephant and other threatened creatures like the rhino and lion. Instead, they often panic and say things that make the rest of the world sit up in surprise.
In this case, The Tanzania Daily News on the 4th of June reported how Natural Resources Minister Lazaro Nyalandu, said that TANAPA would launch an investigation into the 12,000 elephants “missing” from Ruaha.
However, it is unlikely that these elephants are merely “missing”. High carcass rates were recorded in all areas surveyed, which is an accepted method of determining abnormally high mortality rates. Additionally, not all carcases will be spotted: many are picked clean of flesh and hidden by vegetation long before.
Certainly, many elephants have moved deep into the bush to avoid detection, or, as reported by a camp manager in Ruaha National Park who prefers to remain anonymous, clustering together in large numbers for perceived protection. Normally, in July, when water is still easily available, elephant will be dispersed and feeding peacefully in small family groups.
While the stability of population numbers in the Serengeti and Tarangire ecosystems provides a glimmer of hope, the Tanzanian Government should not under estimate the damage to the Tanzanian tourism industry that a widespread perception of unfettered poaching in the country will do. The African tourism industry is immensely competitive and the tourists will go to where they think the animals to be. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph picked up the story of the catastrophic decline in elephant numbers, following on from The Daily Mail and the BBC last year.
If the international media is consistent in its reporting on the conservation failings in Tanzania, then it will take a lot more than some advertising in Sunderland on a match day (Tanzaniainvest.com) to repair the damage.