Ground Zero: saving elephants

AP
In and around Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, where some of the world's worst poaching has happened, numerous wildlife veterinarians are doing their best to save elephants. 
AP

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A team of wildlife veterinarians use a vehicle and a rope to turn over a tranquilized elephant in order to attach a GPS tracking collar and remove the tranquilizer dart, in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. 

The elephant staggered and keeled over in the tall grass in southern Tanzania, where some of the world’s worst poaching has happened.

It wasn’t a killer who targeted her but a conservation official, immobilizing her with a drug-filled dart. Soon she was snoring loudly, and they propped open her trunk with a twig to help her breathe. They slid a 12-kilogram GPS tracking collar around the rough skin of her neck and injected an antidote, bringing her back to her feet. After inspecting the contraption with her trunk, she ambled back to her family herd.

The operation was part of a yearlong effort to collar and track 60 elephants in and around Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, widely acknowledged as “Ground Zero” in the poaching that has decimated Africa’s elephants in recent years. 

Legal ivory markets are shrinking worldwide, and law enforcement has broken up some key trafficking syndicates, say experts. 

But it’s far too early to declare a turnaround. Poachers are moving to new areas and traffickers are adapting, aided by entrenched corruption. The rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate. And the encroachment of human settlements is reducing the animals’ range.

If poaching can be brought under control here in Tanzania, there is hope that the killing of elephants can be stemmed elsewhere on the continent.

Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from millions around 1900 to at least 415,000 today. Intelligent and emotional, with highly developed social behavior, elephants have been hunted for their ivory for centuries. A ban on commercial trade in ivory across international borders went into effect in 1990, but many countries continued to allow the domestic buying and selling of ivory.

In Tanzania alone, the elephant population declined by 60 percent to 43,000 between 2009 and 2014, according to the government. Much of the slaughter happened in an ecosystem comprising the Selous and the adjacent Mikumi National Park.  

The killings in Tanzania appear to have slowed down. A count in the Selous-Mikumi area last year added up 23 carcasses of poached elephants, just 20 percent of the number found four years earlier. And African elephant poaching has declined to pre-2008 levels after reaching a peak in 2011, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It’s a positive trend, but there is speculation there is a dearth of elephants to kill in many areas.

In Tanzania’s Selous region, more newborn elephants are visible and confident elephants are moving more widely outside unfenced, officially protected areas, said Edward Kohi, principal research officer with the state Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and leader of the GPS collaring program funded by WWF. The collars are designed to allow rangers to track the movement of elephant herds, and then mobilize to protect them if they move into poaching hotspots. By receiving satellite-transmitted data on mobile phones, rangers could also intercept elephants that drift into a human settlement or fields of crops.

There has also been movement to crack down on trafficking. Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who took office in 2015, took a hard line and authorities have arrested key suspects linked to trafficking syndicates.

However, the fight against the illegal ivory trade is like squeezing a balloon — when gains are made in one area, such as Tanzania, the killings intensify in another spot, like Mozambique’s Niassa reserve to the south, which is linked to the Selous by a wildlife corridor. And international seizures of smuggled ivory appear to be as large as ever, a possible sign of hurried efforts by traffickers to move stockpiles before business gets too difficult.

Another worrying development is evidence of increased processing of ivory tusks into jewelry and trinkets within Africa, instead of the old method of shipping raw ivory out of the continent. This allows traffickers to transport ivory in smaller quantities that are hard to detect.

Plans to deploy a helicopter to help spot and herd the elephants fell through. Vehicles got stuck in mud. One morning, a startled wildlife official sprinted to his vehicle after briefly entering a toilet labeled “Gents” at a dirt airstrip. A female lion who had been reclining in a stall sauntered out.

The team sometimes tracked elephants on foot, studying big round footprints, broken branches and the freshness of elephant dung for clues to their whereabouts.

Just two out of a planned five elephants were collared over three days in the Mikumi park. The conservationists refrained from darting elephant matriarchs, instead choosing younger females that they know will follow the group. They also intend to collar often solitary bull elephants.

The elephants displayed their social bonds in one instance, retreating into a defensive circle after hearing the pop of the dart gun. When a female was hit, the others appeared to try to prop up their woozy companion before fleeing.

Suspected traffickers are a threat to more than elephants. In August 2017, conservationist Wayne Lotter, credited with helping Tanzanian authorities dismantle some ivory smuggling operations, was murdered. Eight people have been arrested for the murder.

In 50 to 100 years, said Kohi, the collaring team leader, “when the human population is skyrocketing, this will be one of the important areas for the conservation of elephants.”



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