AFRICAN JOURNEY, Ruaha under fire: trying to protect a unique Tanzanian national park

I could show you half a dozen leopard,'' assured Chris Fox as we bumped along a dirt track following the Mdonya sandriver. ``There're still a lot around here, but you've got to keep your eyes peeled.'' The terrain was ideal leopard country. Rocky ``kopje,'' or outcrops, 1,000-year-old Baobab trees and riverine woodland thickets. It was also an hour before sunset when leopard normally emerge to hunt.

Already, groups of zebra, impala, and greater kudu were making their way down to the sandriver to drink. Being the height of the dry season, the bed was parched. But through the undergrowth we could see a small herd of elephant digging for water with their feet and trunks.

We drove until we reached our campsite for the night beneath a large fig tree deep inside the Ruaha National Park. But we saw no leopard. ``It's also a matter of luck,'' sighed my friend, a Tanzanian-born Englishman now running the Ruaha River Camp. The park's only catered tourist accommodation, it's safari-style ``bandas'' (huts) overlook the Great Ruaha River, teeming as it is with crocodile and hippo.

We did not feel too badly about not seeing any leopard. Because of Ruaha's relative isolation, the satisfaction of experiencing what is reputed to be East Africa's wildest and least-spoiled parks was enough. Sleeping under the stars, we heard the throaty grunts of a nearby lion. Other animals, too, including an elephant which gingerly skirted our bedrolls, rummaged in the bush. Tanzania's second-largest park

At nearly 13,000 square kilometers of undulating savannah and miombo (woodland), Ruaha is Tanzania's second-largest national park. It cannot claim the thunderous herds of the Serengeti, but it does have one of the largest varieties of game on the continent, anything from the more common giraffe, waterbuck, and Grant's gazelle to the rarer cheetah and sable antelope. It also boasts some of the region's richest birdlife, over 370 recorded species, many not found in the northern parks or in Kenya.

Tragically, Ruaha, as with all of Tanzania's great gameparks and reserves, is being gradually laid waste by man. As we headed back to the river camp next morning, we passed the bleached remains of an elephant, its tusks hacked off. We also counted no fewer than sixbushfires on the horizon. ``Poachers,'' said Chris. ``It's getting worse the whole time.''

According to conservationists, including the Nairobi-based regional office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), poaching in Tanzania has reached staggering proportions over the past two or three years.

Similarly, the burning of over three quarters of the Ruaha park area in 1984 is believed to have been caused by poachers. Fires are usually started to flush out game or to facilitate tracking. This year, maintained Park Warden Charles Kibasa, promises to be even more disasterous. ``If we cannot stop this, the park will just fall apart.''

In the early days, poaching tended to be on a minor scale. Usually local farmers hunting with bows and arrows or muzzle loaders for meat, a practice generally tolerated by wildlife authorities. Poaching is big business

But it has since become big business, particularly for ivory, rhino horns, and game trophies. All too often, it is done with the connivance of government officials and even international aid advisers intent on trophies for their walls. ``It has turned into a mass slaughter. It has got completely out of hand with the government incapable or unwilling to do anything about it,'' said one conservation source.

``Fifteen years ago, you could still find elephant, rhino, and buffalo right up to the Iringa tobacco farms 40 or 50 miles from the park boundaries,'' noted British teaplanter Alex Boswell, a founding member of the Friends of Ruaha Society (FRS), a voluntary organization trying to protect the park.

``Now all you find is the occasional bushbuck or leopard. Everything else has been killed off with the poachers pushing well into the park.'' Black rhinos wiped out

The black rhino, for example, once abundant in the Ruaha, are believed to have been completely wiped out. Six years ago, more than 50 rhino carcasses were found, apparently the result of a highly organized operation. Since then, not a single rhino has been seen. According to observers in Dar es Salaam, there was strong circumstantial evidence pointing to involvement by park authorities at the time.

The same observers also maintain that many poachers today are simply local ``small fry,'' hired by businessmen or well-placed government officials. Police recently intercepted a truckload of ivory, a total of 382 elephant tusks, being transported from Iringa to the capital. ``At a thousand shillings ($65) per kilo, and 18 to 30 kilos per tusk, that's a lot of money,'' said Mr. Kibasa.

Another problem is that substantial amounts of largely poached ivory end up being sold at government shops in Dar es Salaam. ``By purchasing it, one only contributes to the killing,'' said one conservationist.

Shootouts sometimes erupt between poorly equipped park rangers and the poachers. Police and military personnel, too, are known to enter the wildlife reserves and parks at night with land rovers, literally machine gunning anything that moves, whether for meat or ivory. Observers further maintain that some of Tanzania's expatriate community, notably Scandinavian diplomats and development representatives, are responsible for the devastation of wildlife.

Unlike Kenya, hunting is legal in Tanzania. Originally, it was only permitted in so-called controlled areas with strict quotas, and at a price. But in recent years, the government has opened up the game reserve as a means of obtaining hard currency. In many cases, however, expatriate hunters are known to have overshot their quotas through bribes. They have also killed protected species and even ventured into the game parks themselves. Shortage of equipment

The park authorities, however, are facing an almost intractable dilemma. They lack the funds, manpower, and equipment to even begin cracking down on poaching and fires.

Part of the fault lies with the government. Tanzania's present policy of charging high tourist prices has effectively discouraged foreigners from visiting the country. Not only does this deny the parks desperately needed revenue but also eliminates any economic incentive to protect wildlife. In addition, legal deterrents appear inadequate. Poachers often face no more than a 100 shilling fine, or simply buy their way out.

But Tanzania is also an extremely large and poor country. At the time of this correspondent's visit, Mr. Kibasa, who has since been transferred to another park, had fewer than 50 men, one working Land Rover out of five, and one radio to police the entire park. ``We have divided Ruaha into three zones and try to patrol the area by foot and by car. I have also tried controlled burning to reduce the damage,'' he explained. ``But what can we do? We have no spare parts, fuel, and barely enough money to pay m y men.''

The poachers know this. Earlier this month, in a particularly brazen move, they gunned down five elephants within sight of the park headquarters.

Private organizations such as the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the FRS are trying to alleviate some of these problems through private funding. The Germans, for example, recently purchased a solar panel for the radio and sent down a mechanic to maintain the vehicles. The FRS has helped grade roads, which also serve as fire breaks, and provide fuel for the Land Rovers. But the private organizations can only do so much. For the moment, much of the financial burden may have to fall on carefully mo nitored foreign assistance.

``Sometimes I throw my hands up in despair!'' said Geoff Fox, who first introduced his children to the wonders of Ruaha years ago. ``We've got to realize that this is not just Tanzania's problem. It's part of our world heritage. If we don't do something fast, we may be witnessing the last chapter.''

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