By Brian Jackman
Addition of Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve to Unesco's danger list should come as no suprise - two-thirds of its elephants have been poached in the last five years
The addition of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites under threat will have sent shock waves throughout the conservation world. Covering 50,000 km2, the Selous is one of the largest protected areas in Africa, renowned for its large numbers of elephants and other big game. But rampant poaching has brought about a dramatic decline in its elephant and rhino populations whose numbers have dropped by nearly 90 per cent since the reserve was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1982.
Poaching right across sub-Saharan Africa has now reached the point where the trade in ivory is simply unsustainable and elephants could be brought close to extinction within the next ten years. According to Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation, at least 23,000 elephants were killed last year and the reasons are not hard to find. “A single elephant can yield 10kg of ivory with a market value of around $30,000,” he says, “and the trade itself is worth as much as a billion dollars a year.” No wonder poachers now refer to elephants as walking banks.
The situation is even worse for rhinos, with the price of horn currently worth more than its weight in gold in the Far East. South Africa, home to 83 per cent of the world’s rhinos, is bearing the brunt. Last year was the worst ever, with 1,004 rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa, and this year’s toll could be even higher. If the killing continues at this rate, conservationists fear we could see rhino deaths overtaking births by 2018, making extinction a near certainty in the near future.
The current poaching crisis began in Central Africa about a decade ago and has since shifted to East Africa, where as many as 25,000 elephants were killed in Tanzania’s Selous ecosystem (66 per cent of the reserve’s population) between 2009 and 2013 – hence UNESCO’s decision to add the Selous to its list of World Heritage Sites at risk.
Following the death earlier this month of Satao, one of the last giant tuskers still left in Tsavo national park, the focus has shifted from Tanzania to Kenya, where al-Shabaab terrorists and Somali gangsters are believed to be funding their criminal enterprises by the sale of illegal ivory. Kenya’s elephant population stands at around 38,000, of which 97 have been killed so far this year according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. This compares with a death toll of 302 in 2013 - down from 384 the previous year. However, experts believe the true figures are much higher, and the recent discovery of 117 elephant carcases in the Masai Mara would tend to support this view.
Today poaching has reached epidemic proportions wherever elephants are found and the poachers themselves are more highly organised, as was demonstrated earlier this year when 68 elephants were slaughtered in Garamba National Park in The Democratic Republic of Congo. The poachers used a helicopter for their attack and hurled grenades at the park’s rangers during a 45-minute fire-fight. “The situation is extremely serious,” says Garamba’s manager, Jean-Marc Froment. “The park is under attack on all fronts.”
“It is my belief that we are in the midst of a battle for Africa,” warns Dereck Joubert, the distinguished Botswana-based photographer and wildlife campaigner. “At the moment we are losing a rhino roughly every seven hours and five elephants every hour. If poaching continues at this rate, the hardest hit – the rhinos – will be wiped out in five years.”
Most conservationists agree that income from tourism has a crucial role to play if the battle is to be won. “The bottom line is this: if we abandon tourism, we abandon conservation,” says Kenyan wildlife expert Jonathan Scott. “When people ask me, 'How can we help?’ we say: 'By taking a safari.’ Wildlife-based tourism is not a choice but a necessity. It pays the bills that keep the game parks and their wildlife secure. Without the tourist dollars you might as well hand over all the remaining wildlife to the poachers.”