How Simple Arithmetic Can Save Tanzania's Vanishing Elephants

Arguably the most important wildlife survey on earth happens this week.

On October 9, a family of elephants walks after cooling themselves in a pond during a census at Amboseli National Park, 188 miles southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi. (Photo: Thomas Mukoya / Reuters)

Oct 16, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

A wildlife survey might not sound like the stuff of international intrigue, but what’s happening this week in Tanzania fits that description. Scientists, military, government officials, and international observers have descended on the east African nation in an effort that’s being described as a critical step in turning back the tide of elephant poaching.

At 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day since last October 3, three planes take off at the Selous Game Reserve and run precise transects, at 350 feet above the ground and 180 kilometers an hour, to count wildlife of all kinds. The most closely watched figure will be how many elephants—and how many carcasses—are left on the ground in what has been one of the last great strongholds of the species.

“It’s the most important survey that needs to be done in Africa on elephants,” said the founder of Save The Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton. He was instrumental in organizing the first pan-African elephant survey, which led to 1989’s worldwide ban on ivory trading, and lent his expertise to the current effort when it was in the planning stages. “Selous has the second-largest elephant population in Africa, after Botswana—and by far the most threatened. We have data coming in [separate from the current survey] that suggests there’s a real crisis there.”

The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) is conducting the survey in partnership with the Frankfurt Zoological Society and other groups. Although the recent surge in poaching is widely viewed as demand-driven and therefore difficult to stop in the poor countries at the source, Tanzania and neighboring Kenya have faced criticism for not doing enough to stop the rampant slaughter of elephants for their ivory. The Tanzanian government, conservationists and scientists agreed that outside groups would need to be involved for the international community to regard the census as legitimate.

“Everyone is very pleased it’s being done with this level of transparency,” said one person involved with coordinating the project.

Observers’ hopes for new action from Tanzania’s government perked up when President Jakaya Kikwete became a last-minute addition to the Clinton Global Initiative anti-poaching event last month in New York City, and at a wildlife trafficking event during the UN General Assembly two days later.

“In the past, there was extraordinary reluctance to even admit that there was a poaching problem,” said Tim Davenport, director of the Tanzania program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is not involved in the survey. “Officials were cautious about having anyone do a true survey of elephants and carcasses,” largely because the government was hoping to win international permission to sell its stash of almost 100 tons of confiscated ivory, he said. That effort failed, in the face of evidence that the legalized trade of ivory from some nations in southern Africa has served to launder illegal ivory—much of it traced by DNA sequencing to Tanzania itself.

It’s anybody’s guess why President Kikwete chose to act now, but conservationists are clearly pleased. Peyton West, director of FZS’s operation in the United States, emailed TakePart from the survey command center that many observers were “wondering whether he would send in the military. And, lo and behold, [last week] a military truck arrived in the Selous. Tanzania’s military really made a difference against poaching in the 1980s, so we’re hopeful this is a sign of things to come.” She wrote several days later to say Tanzania’s military had since expanded its presence to 10 designated wildlife areas, including Serengeti, with arrests being made. “It appears the intention is there, but money is an issue,” she wrote.

Tanzania has designated a remarkable 28 percent of its land for wildlife conservation. More than 800,000 tourists visit annually, to see both the wildlife and some of the most storied landscapes in the world, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, and the Selous Game Reserve. Tourism is the second largest contributor to the national economy, after agriculture.

And yet poachers now kill about 30 elephants a day in Tanzania with near impunity. That’s more than 10,000 a year, according to TAWIRI, and at that rate, elephants could disappear from the wild in just seven years. The government response in the past has amounted to a wrist slap. Wildlife officials reported earlier this year that they had taken 670 poaching cases to court over one recent 15-month period, resulting in $109,377 in fines—$123 per case. Meanwhile, elephant ivory sells for about $1,000 a pound on the global black market. In a frustrated outburst early this month, Khamis Kagasheki, the minister of natural resources and tourism, declared, “The only way to solve this problem is to execute the killers on the spot.”

Yet political corruption up to the ministerial level is widely believed to play a role in the poaching. For instance, Tanzania allows trophy hunting of elephants and charges a fee of more than $22,000 for a larger specimen. In theory, that should provide essential funds to protect the herd and to encourage cooperation from nearby communities. But the money often ends up elsewhere. A Tanzanian newspaper reported last week that politicians and wildlife officials sometimes issue trophy permits improperly, or look the other way as legal permits end up in the hands of poachers. China, the end market for much of the blood ivory, is the leading international investor in Tanzania, with a significant presence of Chinese staff on the ground. Burgeoning wealth in Asia has largely driven the recent surge in ivory poaching, and Douglas-Hamilton and other conservationists are working to reduce demand by changing minds in that country.

Reached by phone at the Selous, Felix Borner of the Frankfurt Zoological Society said that the survey team has gone to extraordinary lengths to make its elephant count accurate. Preparation included a week working with wildlife observers from TAWIRI, Tanzania National Parks, and Kenya before hand-picking the most accurate among them, followed by an additional three days of training.

Borner had just returned to base from a day’s survey work, having piloted a Cessna 182 over five 60-mile transects. The pilot sees no animals, he said, because he is too focused on keeping the plane at speed and altitude, on a precise GPS track, the standard protocol for surveys. An observer in the front seat and two in the rear do the actual counting, with GPS data and high-resolution photography to confirm every sighting. They speak their sightings into a recording device, because writing them down on paper would mean taking their eyes away from the ground.

Each transect covers a precise strip, 160 meters wide on each side of the plane. A couple of angled “streamers” on the wing struts define the transect boundaries for the observers. Because the angle of the plane on the ground is different from the angle of flight, technicians put the front wheel of the plane in a ditch to get the streamers positioned correctly. Eventually they will cover all of Selous’s 110,000 square kilometers—an area slightly larger than Wyoming.

It will take at least until the end of the week to complete the work in the Selous. The big question is what President Kikwete and the Tanzania Parliament will do with the results, once they come out around the end of the year. As one person involved with coordinating the survey said, outside groups have been “anticipating how the public and media will react to the numbers, since we fear they will be lower.”

The larger challenge will be how to manage the elephants and stop the poachers before the last of East Africa’s great elephants herds vanishes into memory and dust.