Following growing concern amongst the conservation fraternity over the number of poaching incidents and seizures of blood ivory and other wildlife trophies has government at last, and many say rather belatedly acted late last week. A national anti-poaching unit was introduced to be deployed as and where the situation may demands but also to more intensely police the airports and seaports of Tanzania, through which allegedly large quantities of ivory have been smuggled in the past.
Donors to and financial supporters of TANAPA have been critically viewing developments over the past 18 months, since Tanzania’s attempt to legally sell ivory was thwarted by a vote in the CITES tri-annual assembly of member states. The report published at the time by the CITES Secretariat in Lusaka was rather damning over lack of political will and material facilitation of anti-poaching operations and it was only the killing of an Eastern Black Rhino in the Serengeti, received just months earlier by none other than President Kikwete, which triggered a broader review of the fight against poaching and wildlife smuggling.
Other ongoing controversies over Tanzania’s commitment towards conservation too have resulted in negative publicity for the country, spoiling its erstwhile excellent reputation as being a global guardian of a rich wildlife heritage and endangering funding towards conservation from around the globe.
The introduction of a national anti poaching unit however seems to underscore that government and its various organs have now finally understood just how critical a sustained anti-poaching effort is, to promote the country ahead of the 50th anniversary of independence from Britain as a desirable tourist destination but also to retain the wildlife experience for safari tourists and future generations.
The new unit on the first deployment to the Katavi National Park already showed encouraging results as gangs of poachers, roaming almost at will until now, were scattered and arrested and dozens of firearms confiscated.
The Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism also announced that more equipment will be availed to the unit, such as helicopters for rapid deployment and aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. It is also understood from a usually well informed source that army units can be called upon for special operations, to deploy sufficient counterforce against poachers armed with sophisticated automatic weapons, which is in line with a statement made last year by government but was a long way coming towards implementation. For now it is kudos for the Tanzanian government for their effort to combat poaching and stop the illegal trade in ivory, which is threatening to wipe out entire elephant populations across the Eastern and Southern African safari tourism countries if not brought to a halt.
Said a regular source from Arusha overnight: This is a good step in the right direction. Anti-poaching operations are very important in the field, to create a deterrent, to bust the gangs. But there are other places we need to fight too. The last CITES executive committee meeting got damning reports on the scale of poaching in Africa. They also know the main destination of the ivory. It is there that political intervention is needed to criminalize the demand in these countries. And thirdly airlines, shipping companies have an obligation to make sure that there is no contraband hidden in containers, in parcels and cargo. Anti-poaching on the ground is a battle we can win, given enough manpower and equipment. I have no doubt about TANAPAs commitment to do what it takes to wipe out the poachers. But the other two issues are beyond us here in Tanzania, that needs a global reaction, a sort of coalition to help rescue Africa’s natural heritage. In South Africa they are heading for a new poaching record and rhinos are killed daily now. That only started about 3 years ago when suddenly we saw a big inflow of Chinese companies, Chinese expatriates. I am not saying all Chinese are involved in that but there is a hard core, a criminal hard core who are doing that, driving the poaching and their own government is doing too little to stop it. We need bigger fines, longer sentences for such crimes. But even here in Tanzania, even in Kenya and Uganda, the fines and sentences are a joke, poachers get bail and go back immediately to poach again, that all has to stop.
Sentiments often voiced by this correspondent who on this occasion however gratefully acknowledges the latest move by the Tanzanian government to establish a strong anti-poaching deterrent and finally move from lip service to action.