Selous Game Reserve,
A World Heritage In Danger
February 2015, Volume 13-1

1. Selous Game Reserve: An Exceptional World Heritage Site

Selous was set aside as a reserve as early as in 1896 during German colonial times. The boundaries of the Selous were repeatedly extended to include wildlife migration routes, until the area eventually became what is today Selous Game Reserve, a vast area of roadless, mostly undisturbed open woodlands and floodplains, grasslands, riverine forests and major expanses of Miombo Woodlands. Numerous rivers and creeks belonging to the Rufiji Basin, including the centrally located Rufiji River itself, meander freely through the landscape, flanked by extensive sandbanks. With more than five million hectares (50,000 km2) larger than Switzerland, the Reserve is one of the few remaining vast wilderness areas in eastern Africa with a high degree of naturalness. Home to extraordinary populations of large mammals, including an elephant population of global importance Selous Game Reserve was in 1982 was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982, giving the highest international recognition for its global importance in terms of biodiversity.

2. The World Heritage Convention, How It Works

The World Heritage Convention dates back to 1972 and has as the objective to protect cultural and natural heritage sites of so-called “Outstanding Universal Value”. Outstanding Universal Value is a bit of an abstract concept, but basically refers to sites which are deemed of such an exceptional cultural of natural value that they need to be preserved for the entire humankind and for current and future generations. Natural World Heritage sites are sometimes referred to as “the best of the best” or “the jewels in the crown” in terms of the global protected area estate.

To become a World Heritage site, countries who have signed up to the Convention (the States Parties) have to elaborate and formally submit an a nomination, in which they make the case that the proposed site is indeed exceptional but also demonstrate that it has the necessary integrity and legal protection and that there is the capacity and willingness to protect in place to preserve its values in the long term. Independent advisory bodies then evaluate this application for the Convention, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for natural sites or the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in the case of cultural sites. The final decision on inscription is made by the World Heritage Committee, the governing body of the Convention, composed of representatives from 21 elected States Parties.

With 191 countries that have adhered to the World Heritage Convention, it is one of the most successful international conservation instruments.  Since its start, the World Heritage List has continued to grow and today boosts 1007 terrestrial and marine sites, in 161 countries. Of these, only 197 are natural sites with 31 so-called mixed sites, which are, recognized both for their natural and cultural values. But whereas cultural sites are typically small (a monument or perhaps an historic city center), most natural sites on the World Heritage List include vast natural wilderness areas. Together they protect an astonishing 279 million ha of land and sea across the planet, a massive conservation estate comparable to the size of Argentina.

3. The Convention: A Conservation Instrument

Being inscribed on the World Heritage List is not the culmination of the process but rather a new beginning. By proposing a site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, States Parties take on a solemn commitment to conserve its values for the entire humankind and all States Parties to the Convention have committed to cooperate to achieve this common goal while fully respecting national sovereignty. Once a site is inscribed, its State of Conservation is monitored constantly by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC), in its role of Secretariat to the Convention jointly with the Advisory Bodies mentioned before. If any noteworthy conservation issue credibly arises, the WHC requests the State Party for information on the issue. If the issue is deemed a serious concern, WHC brings the issue to the attention of the World Heritage Committee. Through its decision-making process, the Committee can then request the State Party to take certain measures and to report on their implementation. The Committee can also request the State Party to invite a monitoring mission to the property in order to look into the concern and to recommend management responses in dialogue with the State Party. If the Committee considers the conservation values for which the site was inscribed at risk to be lost or irreversibly compromised, it can decide to inscribe the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Currently 46 sites are on this List of World Heritage in Danger, including 19 natural properties, many of which are situated in Africa.

The World Heritage Convention monitoring mechanism has been ensuring that States Parties maintain a high conservation standard in their sites. Encouragingly, major players in the extractive industries have started to respect natural World Heritage sites as unique places. At the World Parks Congress in 2003, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), regrouping many major mining companies in the world, and the oil company Shell made a landmark commitment to refrain from exploring or exploiting oil and minerals inside natural World Heritage sites. This commitment has been joined recently by other companies such as Total. Increasingly, regarding World Heritage as “no-go areas” has been adopted as a standard by investment banks when reviewing the environmental sustainability of the investment projects. Building upon this remarkable development there is much potential for further consolidating World Heritage sites as places where conservation and its many societal benefits is the primary objective.

4. The Selous, A World Heritage Site In Danger

The State of Conservation of the Selous Game Reserve has been a matter of concern for Committee for many years. A particular concern has been the controversial development of a uranium-mining project inside Selous. Recognizing the incompatibility of mining with the World Heritage status, the Government of Tanzania requested to modify the boundaries of the Reserve to exclude the relatively small area on its southern boundary. After long and complex debate, the World Heritage Committee finally approved this boundary modification on an exceptional basis, after an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) demonstrated that the mining project could be done without a major impact on the overall reserve and after studies showed that taking the small area out would not impact the Outstanding Universal Value for which the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List. In return, the Government of Tanzania took a number of commitments, including not seeking to develop any further mining activities in the Reserve, not to allow any other developments inside the Reserve or its buffer zone without prior approval of the Committee. Furthermore, the government committed itself to ensuring the protection of the corridor from Selous to the Niassa Game Reserve in Mozambique and adding contiguous areas valuable for wildlife to the Reserve. Concerns remain over possible indirect impacts of the mining project on the integrity of the site, in particular the possible contamination of the underground river system flowing towards the Rufiji and the Committee is continuing the monitor the development of the mining project to ensure that the measures foreseen in the EIA are implemented properly.

In this context, the World Heritage Committee in June 2013 at is session in Cambodia, requested the Government of Tanzania to invite a monitoring mission to the site, not only to follow up on the mining development which is now formally outside the World Heritage site but which may impact on the site given its location on the boundary and within the same river basin, but also to review its general State of Conservation. This mission was undertaken in December 2013 by representatives of WHC and IUCN and the full mission report is publicly available on the UNESCO website.

Critical to the justification to inscribe Selous Game Reserve on the World Heritage List were the important wildlife populations it was harbouring at the time of inscription in 1982, including its “globally significant populations of African Elephant and Black Rhinoceros”. There is widespread agreement that historic elephant numbers exceeded 100,000 into the 1970s. However, by the late 1980s the populations dramatically went down to some 30,000. In response to the crisis, the Government developed the Selous Conservation Project, in close cooperation with the Government of Germany. The project strengthened law enforcement and improved the management of the site. This resulted in an impressive recovery of the populations of elephant and other wildlife species, with up to 60,000 elephants estimated around 2002 and eventually some 70,000 in 2005/2006, less than 10 years ago.

Following new and consistent reports about heavily increased poaching, a major aerial survey was conducted just before the mission arrived. The results showed an almost incredible decline of the elephant population, with only slightly more than 13,000 individuals in the entire Selous Ecosystem (which includes also Mikumi National Park, the Selous-Niassa Corridor and the Kilombero Valley Floodplain). The age of carcasses spotted in the survey and the very scale indicate that poaching levels must have been very high for years, even before drawing the major recent attention.

The dramatic decline of the elephant population in Selous is unfortunately not an isolated phenomenon. Elephant poaching has surged alarmingly across Africa over the last years, triggered by newly increasing demand from Asia and in particular China. According to reports of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), illicit trade in ivory has tripled since 1998 and the current situation amounts to the most serious conservation crisis of the African Elephant since 1989.

The mission did not get any data on the population of Black Rhino, but given the high value of rhino horn on the black market, which have lead to increased poaching pressure everywhere on the continent, it is likely that the situation for that species is even more dramatic.

Based on the unprecedented surge in poaching reflected in the documented dramatic decline of the elephant population and the likely decline in Black Rhino and possibly other species, the mission recommended that the World Heritage Committee inscribe Selous Game Reserve on the List of World Heritage in Danger in line with corresponding provisions in the so-called Operational Guidelines under the World Heritage Convention. The World Heritage Committee followed this recommendation and the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in Danger in July 2014 at the Committee meeting in Qatar.

The Government of Tanzania deserves full credit for not only acknowledging the challenges but also for supporting the “danger listing” to draw attention to and address the situation. Both the Committee and the government called on other Parties to support the national efforts to address the poaching issue. Since the inscription on the Danger List, Tanzania has announced a new countrywide anti-poaching strategy and specific measures to address the elephant poaching crisis. Several other States Parties have pledged support to Tanzania. Germany, in particular, has released funds for emergency anti-poaching activities, and is planning a long-term investment to improve the management and infrastructure in the site jointly with Tanzanian partners.

For the moment, it is not clear whether these measures are already bearing fruit. Fact is, however, the danger listing has brought much needed attention within and beyond Tanzania. There is reason for cautious optimism based on past experience. The recovery of the elephant population in the Selous in the 1990s, following the previous poaching crisis of the 1980s illustrated beyond any doubt that recovery is in principle possible – provided poaching can be brought under control.

Selous Game Reserve is one of the few natural sites on the World Heritage List where trophy hunting is permitted. Given the current poaching crisis, it is unsurprising that some have suggested a ban on trophy hunting of elephants. While the complex and emotionally charged debate surrounding trophy hunting of elephants is beyond the scope of this contribution, it is clear that the dramatic decline of elephants in the Selous is not linked to the limited off take by trophy hunting and even opponents of trophy hunting do not appear to make that case. It is important to note that trophy hunting per se is in principle compatible with the World Heritage Convention as a form of “sustainable use” on condition that it is managed in a way that does not compromise the wildlife populations or the ecosystem more broadly. At the same time, trophy hunting is bringing in important revenues, which with the reinstating of the revenue retention scheme are available to ensure the management of this huge area and it therefore seems ill-advised and counterproductive to ban trophy hunting, at a time where all resources are needed to fight the current poaching crisis.

5. Long Term Threats To The Selous

Even if the poaching crisis can be brought under control in the short term and populations bounce back in what continues to be a vast area of prime habitat, numerous challenges risk to compromise the long term future of the Selous. These challenges are linked to the rapid pace of development witnessed in Tanzania, including in and around the wider Selous Ecosystem, which leads to an increasing demand for land and resources. The demand includes land and water for large agricultural schemes, such as the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), road construction, mining and proposed dams. To ensure the long term survival of these vast wilderness areas, it will be crucial that development options are taking into consideration the conservation of this unique area, ensuring landscape connectivity, in particular corridors to other protected areas, the Selous-Niassa Corridor, buffer zones and possible strategic additions to the property. Particularly worrisome is the possible construction of a huge hydroelectric dam on the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge. The dam would create a huge reservoir, covering some 110,000 hectares in the heart of the Reserve. All major infrastructures, including road access and transmission, would be situated entirely within the boundaries of the Reserve or inevitably would have to cross central parts of it. It is unclear what the current status of this project is but if constructed, the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam would undoubtedly induce massive change, put an end to the status of large and central parts of the Reserve as an undisturbed natural area and may call the World Heritage status into question.

The long-term survival of the Selous will require an enhanced coordination and cooperation across sectors and institutions and even more importantly in the long term, a stronger integration of the needs of local communities. To this day, the benefits of the Selous for the growing population living in the Reserve’s vicinity are minimal. At the same time, the mostly poor rural residents bear important costs in the form of crop damage and other forms of human – wildlife conflict, including lethal accidents. Experience from around the world shows that poor rural residents living next to protected areas not only without tangible benefits, but bearing high costs are a recipe for conflict and poor conservation results. Strengthening on-going efforts for benefit sharing and local involvement for example by further empowering local communities in managing Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) around the Reserve are therefore crucial and among the best investments in the long term future of the Reserve.

6. Conclusion

With rapid population growth and development across the continent, the Selous Game Reserve is one of the last large wilderness areas left in eastern Africa. But it is clear that the Reserve could soon reach a crossroads in its history.

The poaching crisis is the most immediate threat to the Selous, and if it cannot be brought under control, wildlife populations will further erode and the site will progressively lose the values for which it was inscribed as a natural World Heritage site. Large herbivores like elephants play a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem dynamic of the Reserve and their disappearance could have other fare reaching consequences for the integrity of the ecosystem. Eventually, this could eventually lead to its delisting from the World Heritage List. However, if decisive action is taken, recovery of the populations is still possible. The situation is dramatic, but key actors have since recognized the scale and urgency of the challenge and are starting to respond to it. It is not too late.

But tackling the poaching crisis will not be enough to ensure the long-term future of the Selous as an undisturbed wilderness area. It will be crucial that developments around the area are planned carefully and that those development options, which are compatible with its survival, are chosen. At the same time, it will be crucial that local communities receive tangible benefits from the Reserve. A joint effort of all stakeholders will be needed to make this work. But we have to make this work: like the Serengeti, the Selous is a common heritage of all Tanzanians and of humankind more broadly. It must not die!

Author: Guy Debonnet and Tilman Jaeger


Guy Debonnet is a natural heritage expert based in Dar-es-Salaam. For the past 12 years he worked at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and was responsible for the natural World Heritage sites in Africa. Before joining UNESCO he worked for 10 years in conservation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

Tilman Jaeger is a forester by training who started his professional career with UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program out of France and later South America. He was then responsible for a conservation project in Mongolia on behalf of GTZ (today GIZ) prior to joining IUCN’s World Heritage Program in 2009. Since 2012 he has been based in Brazil as an independent consultant while serving as an Advisor to IUCN’s World Heritage Program.

For further information on the Selous Game Reserve see: Rolf D. Baldus (Ed.): Wild Heart of Africa. Rowland Ward Publications. Johannesburg 2009