The arrest of a deadly six-man poaching gang this past Sunday in Niassa National Reserve, on Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, could mark a turning point in the war on elephants for two African nations critical to the survival of the species.
In a 1 a.m. raid, the result of a 10-month-long investigation, local police, together with wildlife scouts from Niassa and the adjacent Lugenda Wildlife Reserve, surrounded the gang members as they were transporting a dozen ivory tusks. The largest of the tusks, at 57 pounds apiece, came from an elephant believed to have been at least 40 years old. Police also confiscated two high-powered hunting rifles. During questioning, the shooter in the group, a skilled marksman, admitted to having killed 39 elephants in Niassa this year alone.
That admission came in a bid to obtain repatriation to Tanzania, where four of the alleged poachers are based, according to Alastair Nelson, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Mozambique program, which comanages Niassa with the national government. “But that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. “These guys are in prison now, and we’re pretty confident they’re going to remain there. Mozambique’s new minister of tourism himself phoned the warden and asked that these men be tried under a new law passed June 20.”
That law, for the conservation of biodiversity, criminalizes poaching of endangered species. In the past, poachers often got off with a fine. The new law mandates a prison sentence of eight to 12 years, on conviction. That represents a major change for Mozambique, where in the run-up to elections last year, local police and politicians were rumored to be themselves participating in ivory poaching.
“We’re seeing a number of things beginning to align,” said Nelson. “We have had intelligence before, but it hasn’t been so easy to act.”
Or to get the cooperation of local police. “Up to now, conservation and the environment have not been high up on the list of political priorities,” he said. “Mozambique is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. But there’s more attention to the environment now, and tourism is moving up on the agenda as well.”
The government also faces increasing pressure from neighboring countries, including Tanzania and South Africa, about poachers from Mozambique crossing the border to kill elephants and rhinos in those countries.
The pressure from Tanzania represents a major change. “In the past, there was extraordinary reluctance to even admit that there was a poaching problem,” a WCS biologist told TakePart last October, largely because the government was hoping to win international permission to sell its stash of almost 100 tons of confiscated ivory. But that effort failed, and at a U.N.-sponsored conference in May, Tanzanian Vice President Mohamed Gharib Bilal issued a plea for international help. With about 10,000 elephants being killed in Tanzania every year, conservationists predicted that the animals would be completely eradicated there in just seven years. Tanzania is scheduled to host another major elephant conference in November. “They’re now trying to take a leadership role” on the issue, Nelson said.
Niassa is a wilderness roughly the size of Tennessee, and in a 2011 survey, it was home to 12,000 elephants. With 500 elephants killed by poachers this year alone, that number has almost certainly dropped. According to Nelson, the poachers arrested on Sunday represent just one of five gangs now working in the reserve.
Asked if the arrest of relatively low-level poachers—shooters, porters, and poaching informants—would make much difference for Niassa, Nelson said, “This particular group is highly professional at what they do. That shooter has killed 39 elephants this year. He does this at night, using expensive hunting rifles, probably stolen, and that suggests that he’s brave and exceptionally good. This isn’t an ordinary low-end elephant poacher, and he has been working in Niassa for over a year. Another guy in the gang was the connection to the next guy up the chain. So they’re not that low down.”
“This work on the ground,” said WCS president and CEO Cristián Samper, who was in Niassa, “is part of a three-part strategy to stop the killing of elephants and stop the trafficking and demand for ivory. To solve this crisis, we need to focus efforts in Africa and on the other end of the supply chain in places such as China and the U.S.,” which ranks second in the illegal trade, largely because tourists continue to smuggle carved ivory knickknacks into this country from China.
The turning point in the war on elephants could be happening not just in Tanzania and Mozambique but on a global scale. A march to urge more effective steps to protect elephants and rhinos takes place in cities around the world on Oct. 4. And just this week, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that African elephants have now reached a tipping point, where more animals are being killed each year than are being born. With the population heading down at a rate of 3 percent a year, extinction in the wild of the earth’s largest land animal has become a dismaying possibility.