“For someone who counts elephants, it was like climbing Mount Everest. It was just the highest peak,” he says, speaking hurriedly from his home in Kenya’s Samburu reserve as he wants to catch the last flight light. Nearly 40 years later and backed by Microsoft founder Paul Allen, The Great Elephant Census that Douglas-Hamilton started, is instead exposing how 60 percent of Tanzania’s elephants have vanished over five years.
Douglas-Hamilton’s successors are now assessing what he describes as “a bloodbath for elephants” in Tanzania, which last year became known as Africa’s ivory trading heartland and its parks as elephant killing fields. The drop from 109,051 pachyderms in 2009 to 43,330 recorded at the end of 2014 is hard to fathom.
“It’s no easy task to shoot 10,000 elephants a year. It takes a commitment to shoot 30 a day and export their tusks”, says one safari guide in Tanzania’s largest city of Dar es Salaam, who would only speak on condition of anonymity and in person, after receiving threats for previously speaking out. If a five percent birth rate is taken into account, the elephant death toll rises to 85,000 over five years.
In 1961, Tanzania’s socialist founding father Julius Nyerere spoke poetically about the need to preserve Tanzania’s natural treasures for all. “In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance.”
In the 1980s, Tanzania actually called for a global ivory trade ban after poaching dented its herds. But today, it’s Tanzania’s politicians themselves who are bound up in a trade that has flourished, unlike in other poaching hotspots in Central Africa where civil war kills everything, in a country known as “the island of peace”.
“Here, everyone’s innocent but there’s mass killing. There’s zero accountability”, says one international conservationist in Dar es Salaam who has also been threatened into silence after previously highlighting the silent but steady elephant slaughter.
“There are so many people getting rich, it’s hard to know where it will stop”, says Dave Blanton, Director of Serengeti Watch. He says that the harvesting of elephants by Tanzania’s “laissez-faire” leaders is a shift from the idealism of Nyerere and his “collectivist African values to a more western-based individualism” that has swapped conservation values for cash.
Plans to build a highway through the Serengeti that would have stopped the mighty migration of herds of animals which tourists flock to see each year was only halted after a petition received 2.3 million signatures.
After census numbers revealed that poachers had picked off so many elephants in The Selous, home to what was Africa’s largest population, the poachers moved to the second largest Rungwa-Ruaha park in 2013 and wiped out two thirds of its elephants. Now, conservationists fear for the infamous Serengeti, which other parks rely on to pull in the tourists who spend around $2bn a year – the country’s major foreign exchange earner – as killings continue unabated.
“Anti-poaching is not rocket science. It’s done in quite difficult circumstances all over Africa”, says Douglas-Hamilton. Tanzania’s leaders, after sitting on the latest depressing census figures for months, then denied the worst of them, and are insisting on some recounts, insisting that increased anti-poaching efforts have slowed ivory flows in recent months.
After a military campaign that succeeded in stopping some poachers but failed to respect rights was stalled, American company VETPAW came in to try to train rangers to be sharp shooters and intelligence experts.
What they found were men passionate about conservation but were armed with guns that were up to fifty years old with no bullets.
“Some of them learnt to shoot their weapons in school and haven’t shot them in ten years,” says VETPAW’s Director Bryan Tate, who feared for “the lead in the air” if they did come across poachers, who, by contrast, rarely miss.
A lack of cars and rangers to patrol huge tracts of land was another issue, but the most shocking downfall came in the form of a lack of intelligence saving, storing and sharing, to try to punish poachers and find their kingpins. But dismantling the powerful poaching network requires real political will.
Nothing has come of a list of politicians and businessmen involved in the poaching trade that intelligence services compiled and handed to President Jakaya Kikwete in 2012. “Honestly speaking, this is very high-profile and syndicated business, so it is really difficult to implicate ordinary people”, says Sirili Akko, Executive Secretary of Tanzania Association of Tour Operators (TATO).
“The reality is that it is just as organised as the drug business…and it is definitely involving untouchables. That’s all I can say.” “They’ve been offered all sorts of help; helicopters and major aid programmes and I don’t know what’s going on”, says Douglas-Hamilton.
“It is so little so late that I’m worried the elephants will just keep going down.”