By Lucas Liganga
Hardly a week in the whole of 2013 passed without wananchi reading a screaming banner headline about the poaching of elephants –not only in Tanzania’s electronic and print media but also in the international press.
To be precise, 2013 saw Tanzania turning into a killing field for elephants, a crisis that threatened to bring the jumbos to the brink of extinction.
During independence in 1961, Tanzania had 350,000 elephants; but poaching had resulted in the population of the jumbos going down to about 55,000 in 1989. Thanks to an anti-poaching operation christened Operation Uhai in 1989/90, the population rose to more than 100,000.
This operation was followed by another called Operation Kipepeo in 2009 headed by deputy commissioner of police (DCP), Venance Tossi. The outcome of this operation was not made public apart from the daily basis reporting of arrests of poachers and seizure of fire arms used in poaching.
As memories of these two anti-poaching operations were relegated to the archive, fresh reports emerged this year indicating that poachers kill an estimated 30 elephants every day, or about 850 every month. The number of elephants dropped from 130,000 in 2002 to 109,000 in 2009 and wildlife experts have warned that the entire population could be wiped out by 2020 if the trend continues.
This gloomy prediction forced the government to form another operation on September 5, 2013—the infamous Operesheni Tokomeza Ujangili.
To the dismay of wildlife conservationists this operation was suspended indefinitely due to claims of civilian abuse, torture, extortion and murder.
By the time it was suspended in the first week of November, 952 suspected poachers had already been arrested, 104 pieces of ivory seized, 631 firearms—including 13 military weapons—had been seized during the operation jointly conducted by the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces, Tanzania Police Force and Tanzania National Parks.
Addressing Parliament in Dodoma last month, the President Kikwete said the special anti-poaching operation which was suspended last month will soon continue, adding that every thing should be done to ensure the project is running again as soon as possible. “The problem (poaching) is frightening. A lot of ivory has been impounded inside and outside the country. In total we are talking about 36 tonnes of tusks which equals to around 15,000 elephants,” said President Kikwete.