In A Tanzanian Village, Elephant Poachers Thrive

Oct 25, 2012
Originally published on October 25, 2012 6:16 pm

An insatiable demand for ivory in Asia is fueling a massive slaughter of elephants across Africa. As NPR's John Burnett reports, one of the worst poaching hot spots is Tanzania. In this story, he visits an ivory poacher's town that sits next to a major game reserve.

It's midday in Mloka, a cheerless village that is the gateway to one of Africa's greatest nature sanctuaries, the Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than Switzerland and has vast numbers of giraffes, zebras and hippos in addition to elephants. The sun is stultifying, and the streets are lifeless, but business is booming for the poachers in Mloka.

Two poachers agreed to talk about their illegal work in the courtyard of a low-cost guesthouse in Mloka, where laundry hangs on a line and prostitutes slip in and out of rooms.

A 46-year-old elephant killer who gives his name as Mkanga slouches in a plastic chair.

"Ivory buyers come to Mloka and look for us. They say they want 200 kilograms [440 pounds] of ivory, can you arrange for that? The businessmen are mainly Chinese," he says.

"After getting a down payment, I look for some boys to hire as porters. We bring flour, sugar, beans and water with us," he adds. "We cross into the game reserve at night, but after that we can move in the daytime because there is no one there."

Tracking Elephants To Watering Holes

The second poacher, who gives his name as Salma Abdallah, is 35 and wears a dirty Dallas Cowboys jersey.

"Elephants fear for their lives so it's not easy to spot them," he says. "We'll walk for five days or more. We find them when they go to drink water in the afternoon or go to a forest to feed."

Abdallah says he goes out with about 10 guys, each with a different role.

"I am the shooter," he says.

"While we're out, we'll shoot an impala or wildebeest for food, dry the leftover meat and bring it back to the village to sell," he adds.

Both poachers have poisoned elephants with pesticide-spiked pumpkins or other fruit, but they said that method is inefficient.

They use large-caliber hunting rifles. After the kill, they hack off the tusks with an ax. They usually take six to eight elephants per trip.

Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals. They will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones.

Mkanga, the first poacher. is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap, and smirks.

"Sometimes when they have a funeral, it's like a party for me," he says. "You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one."

Big Money In A Poor Place

"Sometimes when I finish my business and I'm back at my house and I've gotten paid, I do feel like I've done something bad," he adds. "But when I don't have money to pay for my children's school fees or anything to eat, I say, 'Yeah, the game reserve is my shop. Let me go to the shop and kill.' "

Local sources say elephant tusks fetch about $60 a kilo (2.2 pounds). That's $12,000 for a 200 kilogram (440 pound) consignment of ivory in a country where the per capita income is $125 a month.

Wildlife activists, government officials, safari operators and poachers say the elephant herds of the Selous are being systematically wiped out.

They confirm a 2010 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, in London, which points to the Selous as one of Africa's worst elephant killing fields. DNA tests conducted on nearly 1,500 tusks seized in 2006 at seaports in Taiwan and Hong Kong traced them to elephants in the Selous and neighboring Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

Tanzania's natural resources minister, Khamis Kagasheki, was brought in five months ago to clean up his notoriously corrupt agency, strengthen protection for game reserves and crack down on poachers. He says Mloka will be one of his first targets.

"The biggest poaching community is protected by the leadership in Mloka, this I know," he says. "And believe me, I sent them a message, I'm going to move after them."

In the first week of October, rangers reportedly shot two poachers inside the reserve. Mloka residents were so furious they temporarily blocked the road and wouldn't let tourists in or out.

Meanwhile, Mkanga, the poacher, insists he has given up poaching and gone back to farming. He's asked if he cares whether his four children might not be able to see a wild elephant.

"Yeah, sure," he says distractedly, "that would be very sad."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A tragic change in Tanzania's ecosystem is now underway, and there is no doubt that it is manmade. An insatiable market for ivory in Asia is fueling an epic slaughter of the country's elephants. Tanzania has the world's second largest population of elephants, after Botswana. Poachers there are invading protected areas and gunning down elephant families for their tusks.

This morning, NPR's John Burnett explored the politics of the problem and why the government hasn't stopped the slaughter. Now, John takes us to an ivory poacher's town in Tanzania where business is booming.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It is midday in Mloka, a cheerless village that is the gateway to one of Africa's greatest nature sanctuaries, the Selous Game Reserve. The heat of the sun is stultifying and the streets are lifeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BURNETT: A muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, but nothing stirs. There's only lassitude and vigilance. While one segment of the village sells colorful tribal paintings and carved animals to tourists, another segment is annihilating the savanna elephants that so delight vacationers.

Wildlife activists, government officials, safari operators, and poachers interviewed for this report say the iconic elephant herds of the Selous are being systematically wiped out. They confirm a 2010 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, in London, which points to the Selous as Tanzania's and one of Africa's worst elephant killing fields.

DNA tests conducted on nearly 1,500 tusks seized in 2006, at seaports in Taiwan and Hong Kong, traced them to elephants in the Selous and the neighboring Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BURNETT: Two poachers agreed to talk about their business in the courtyard of a low-cost guesthouse in Mloka, where laundry hangs on a line and hookers slip in and out of rooms. A 46-year-old elephant killer who gives his name as Mkanga slouches in a plastic chair.

MKANGA: (Through translator) Ivory buyers come to Mloka and look for us. They say they want 200 kilograms of ivory, can you arrange for that? The businessmen are mainly Chinese.

(Through translator) After getting a downpayment, I look for some boys to hire as porters. We bring flour, sugar, beans and water with us. We cross into the game reserve at night, but after that we can move in the daytime because there's no one there.

BURNETT: The second poacher says his name is Salma Abdallah. He's 35 and wears a soiled Dallas Cowboys' jersey.

SALMA ABDALLAH: (Through translator) Elephants fear for their lives so it's not easy to spot them. We'll walk for five days or more. We find them when they go to drink water in the afternoon or go to a forest to feed. There are nine to 10 people in the group and they each have a different job. And I am the shooter. While we're out, we'll shoot an impala or wildebeest for food, dry the leftover meat, and bring it back to the village to sell.

BURNETT: Both poachers have poisoned elephants with pesticide-spiked pumpkins or other fruit, but they said that method is inefficient. They use large caliber hunting rifles. After the kill, they hack off the tusks with an axe. They usually take six to eight elephants per trip.

Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals; that they will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones.

Mkanga, the first poacher, is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap and smirks.

MKANGA: (Through translator) Sometimes when they have a funeral, it's like a party for me. You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one. Sometimes when I finish my business and I'm back at my house and I've gotten paid, I do feel like I've done something bad. But when I don't have money to pay for my children's school fees or anything to eat, I say, yeah, the game reserve is my shop. Let me go to the shop and kill.

BURNETT: The Selous Game Reserve is one of the largest repositories in Africa for elephant, black rhino, cheetah, giraffe and hippopotamus. Here on the Rufiji River in the north of the refuge, hippos loll about the shallows, their fleshy eyes and wiggly ears poking above the surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPOPOTAMUS)

BURNETT: The hippos are not threatened. Aside from the odd bush meat hunter, hippos possess nothing of value for poachers. Not so, the elephant. Local sources say prices paid at the village level for tusks are $60 a kilo. That's $12,000 for a 200 kilogram consignment of ivory in a country where the per capita income is $125 a month.

Natural resources minister, Khamis Kagasheki, was brought in five months ago to clean up his notoriously corrupt agency, strengthen refuge protection and crackdown on poachers. He says Mloka will be one of his first targets.

KHAMIS KAGASHEKI: The biggest poaching community is protected by the leadership in Mloka, this I know. And believe me, I sent them a message, I'm going to move after them.

BURNETT: In the first week of October, rangers reportedly shot two poachers inside the reserve. Mloka residents were so furious they blocked the road and wouldn't let tourists in or out. That's a good start. But James Lembeli, chairman of the Parliamentary Natural Resources Committee, says the government cannot save the elephants of Selous unless it starts investing in the refuge.

There's a double standard in Tanzania's wildlife protection. Famous national parks, like the Serengeti, are well protected and the rangers well-paid. But Lembeli says it's the network of game reserves which is larger than the national park system and just as valuable biologically that is being plundered. They're not well patrolled, the rangers are ill-paid and demoralized and they lack basic equipment.

JAMES LEMBELI: They don't have vehicles. They are ill-equipped.

BURNETT: So, you said there are 10 vehicles for Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than the country of Switzerland.

LEMBELI: Exactly. If you go to the Selous today, this is the situation.

BURNETT: The minister says he wants to create a Selous Wildlife Authority to directly support conservation there, but the hour is late. Tourists who provide much of this country's foreign exchange are starting to see landscapes devoid of elephants. Charles Dobie, who runs a safari camp in northern Selous, received this recent report.

CHARLES DOBIE: On a full day's game drive, about eight, nine hours, our head guide saw only three elephants. Now, if you compare that a few years ago, you'd have seen more than 100 elephant on a full day drive.

BURNETT: Back in Mloka-town, Mkanga, who insists he's given up poaching and gone back to farming, is asked this question. Does he care if his four children would never be able to see a wild elephant?

MKANGA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Yeah, sure, he says distractedly, that would be very sad. John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.