The Selous Game Reserve had for many years enjoyed its status as the largest stronghold of African elephants in the world. The first formal census was conducted in 1976 and recorded 110,000 elephants. This was believed to be the carrying capacity of the 50,000 km2 wildlife country. This population of elephants faced an onslaught beginning the early 1980’s.
I only joined Selous Game Reserve in 1985 after my studies at Mweka College of Wildlife Management of Africa. In 1986 I was appointed a Sector Warden for the Southern Sector – Liwale, one of the then four sectors of Selous. I took part in the 1986 census. Another census was conducted in 1986 recorded 55,000 indicating that in only ten years, 55,000 elephants were massacred. I participated in the census. The situation was very grief, chilling and frustrating. This was a very sad story. While the poaching level was very high in the entire Selous, the southern part of Selous was better-off in terms of numbers of elephants compared to the northern, eastern and western part of Selous Game Reserve.
In reaction to the appalling situation, Frankfurt Zoological Society sponsored a report on rehabilitation of Selous Game Reserve in 1987 on behalf of the Wildlife Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. Frankfurt Zoological Society contracted J. Stephenson to prepare the report. The report advanced strategies to remedy the situation and detailed the requirement of resources necessary for arresting the situation. The German Government quickly intervened by funding the emergency program to arrest the situation in the same year (1987). In 1989, a fully-fledged program (The Selous Conservation Program) was commissioned by the German Government. As a condition to the funding, the German government requested the Tanzanian Government to allow for a 50% Retention Scheme whereby Selous Game Reserve would retain 50% of its revenue accruing from tourist hunting. The German Government also attached a component of involving the communities in conservation of wildlife resources in the areas surrounding the reserve. This was the dawn of community based conservation in Tanzania.
Another dry season census was undertaken in 1989, this time only three years after the previous census. This census was done in order to establish the baseline population of elephants at the outset of the program. The story was even worse-off, grimmer, and more consternating. The census registered slightly less than 30,889 elephants in the ecosystem. This was shocking but was also a good ground for commitment on the part of the Government of Tanzania and the Selous Staff.
The funding from the German Government and the Retention Scheme improved the management capacity of Selous. On the other hand, the Tanzania Government launched a crackdown on poaching through an operation christened Operation Uhai. I took part in the Operation Uhai, and as a Sector Warden I worked hard to make sure that the elephant carnage was stopped in my area of work. The poaching trend was stopped and the elephant population started building up. The Retention Scheme was fully operationalized in 1993 and was the biggest factor for the capacity building for the Selous staff. When I was appointed a Chief Warden for the entire Selous in 1994 I made sure that we bought heavy construction equipment including graders, bucket loaders and lorries in addition to the equipment that was acquired from the German funding. This enabled us to open roads to allow for an access to all the areas of the reserve. On the other hand, we undertook in situ combat training and inspired discipline among the staff and a sense of responsibility and commitment to anti-poaching.
Our anti-poaching motto was “that the only way to deter poachers from operating in Selous was for the rangers to register presence in all the areas of the reserve”. We did it and poaching was absolutely contained. A census conducted in 1994 registered 52,234 elephants, in 1998, there were 55,672 elephants, in 2002, 63,039 elephants and in 2006, 70,406 elephants. This was an increase of 39,517 elephants from the lowest dry season count of 1989 (see figure 1). At a conservative estimated population increase of 6% (7% for Addo National Park in South Africa) for Selous elephants, the record figure of almost 110,000 in 1976 i.e. 112,215 elephants could have been reached this year (2014)
I left Selous Game Reserve in 2008 after being transferred to a training institute in the northern part of Tanzania. I left while the population of elephants was still increasing. I came back to Selous in July 2012. I found the situation of poaching beyond imagination. The situation was again terrible. The infrastructure had degenerated, equipment completely broken, staff morale very poor, patrol vehicles were virtually all broken. There were also some problems with the retention scheme. The funding for Selous was very low. There were only 250 scouts who each spent 10 patrol days per month thus a total of 30,000 patrol days per year which was an equivalent of 3/5 of a day per square kilometer per year. This was to low an average. Scouts had their allowances not paid in time or not paid for all the days they went on patrol and made the reserve porous to poachers. It was sad news. It was very frustrating and disheartening. My heart bathed in my tears. I cried for my beloved Selous. I felt Selous shattering in pieces. I prayed to God that this should not continue to happen under my watch.
After assessing the situation, I raised an alarm to conservation partners particularly the hunting companies. I requested them to come to our assistance in waging an all-out war against poaching. Based on my experience, I knew it was possible to fight the poaching and stop it. I knew that I did it in the past and definitely could do it once more. I mobilized and sensitized the staff, called in volunteers, rehabilitated vehicles, opened roads to ease patrols, established a high level performance evaluation among the staff and ensured that every staff was paid what was due for him/her. The idea was to spend every dollar of the retention scheme as effectively and efficiently as possible. I knew that we had to offer sweat and blood as our ransom of elephants from their siege. A number of scouts were injured in the cause of actions, but we taught the poachers a lesson that we could no longer tolerate their self-imposed immunity to the conservation laws. Poachers flouted the Wildlife Conservation Act No. 5 of 2009 with impunity, went on press bragging that nothing would stop them from exercising their self-imposed right. Today, the situation is different in Selous. I am sure the census conducted last month will confirm this. When we said we are going to free elephants we meant it. We have done it.
I thank all those who have participated in the struggle. The hunting companies contributed and are contributing a lot. The Tanzania Wildlife Safaris and its sister companies of Barlette Safaris and Pasanisi Hunting Safaris have contributed two 4×4 patrol cars, four Polaris 4×4 off road patrol jeeps, monetary support of up to USD 600,000 for paying monthly allowances for 100 volunteers, On the other hand, Kiboko Hunting Safaris, Kilombero North Hunting safaris and Luke Samaras Hunting Safaris have also contributed significantly to our efforts against poaching. These companies and others have supported us by availing their vehicles for transporting scouts to patrol areas. We are planning for a meeting with all the hunting companies operating in Selous to sensitize them on contributing to this endeavor. We thought that we show that we can do it and then invite them to assist. I shall, let Eric Pasanisi arrange for that meeting. He is so moved by our success and highly passionate to our approach we have taken against poaching I have a draft of strategies to tighten the noose on the poachers. I am sure they will endorse the plan and we should be able to set an example in Africa that we have done it and others should follow suit.
How have we done it? First we increased the number of patrol scouts from 250 in 2012 by employing 207 new employees, recruiting 250 volunteers. We now have 680 patrol scouts. Each scout spends a minimum of 20 days on patrol per month for the 12 months of the year. This adds to a total of 163,200 patrol days up from the 30,000 patrol day bringing an average of 3.2 days per square kilometer per year. These scouts have patrol bases in the bush which are permanently occupied. In hotspot areas, where the concentration of elephants is evident, patrol groups are spaced at short interval distances and any shoot out by poachers will be picked and pursued immediately. We have managed to increase the number of patrol cars from 20 to 40 and expect to increase them to 60 by the end of next year. We have rehabilitated four graders seven lorries and other machinery that are urgently required for anti-poaching. The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Frankfurt Zoological Society have meanwhile come to support us. Together we have devised a “Selous Elephant Emergency Project” (SEEP), which equips rangers and provides urgently required practical assistance. We invite others to join.
We are doing more and more at a fast rate. It is imperative that tourist hunting continues in Selous for two main reasons. The first reason is that hunting companies and hunters have helped a lot to control the poaching situation in Selous Game Reserve through direct involvement. Secondly, 85% the Selous Retention Scheme comes from hunting. If any amount of hunting revenue is compromised, the registered success in anti-poaching could be seriously jeopardized. This year the US Fish & Wildlife agency stopped the importation of hunting trophy ivory into the USA. This move is a disaster for Selous as most of its income is directly or indirectly dependent on elephant hunting. If the remaining 13,084 elephants would be wiped out in the very near future this ban would a major cause for this.
I wish that hunting of elephants is sustained. Tourist hunting has a very insignificant impact on the decline in numbers of elephants. It can in no way be linked to the declines. It is strictly poaching that has the highest and unsustainable off-take. There could be stricter requirements for hunting elephants but the hunting should continue. If we stop hunting of elephants in Selous we should be prepared for another pandemonium from poachers, another distressful time, that of a possible loss of an entire population of elephants in Selous, an elephants doomsday, we may not be able to recover the African elephant population in Selous forever. This could be another experience after the rhino experience.
If the current efforts of anti-poaching in Selous are sustained and stepped up, we should be capable of doubling the Selous elephant population in the next 12 years. This year’s census will give a good baseline as we expect that due to the peaceful situation that has been achieved, even the hidden elephants should have come out and could increase the number to some extent. I am hopeful that we have more elephants now that the number revealed in 2013.
I have never believed that poaching cannot be contained; I will never believe that it is impossible to stop poaching. The last person who pulls a trigger to shoot an elephant is an African in an African environment, I am an African trained and committed, armed and dedicated to protect wildlife in the African environment. I will do all that it takes to stop poaching. I have the will, vision, passion and courage to do it. So do my fellow Selous staff as of now. The international community should understand this. I will not do it for financial gain. God bless Selous, God bless the elephants, God bless conservation in Tanzania and the world over.
Author: Benson Kibonde