Hunting for Africa's Wildlife Poachers

Help for efforts in Tanzania is international, while pragmatism still allows a lucrative game business

FOR three hours under a glaring African sun, the anti-poaching patrol struggled through the dense Tanzania woodland, at times waist deep in flooded thickets, often forced to steer clear of the volatile Cape buffalo, and constantly at odds with the tsetse fly. Suddenly one scout gave a whistle, calling the six other men and one woman.

Pressed into a muddy highway of buffalo tracks were several sets of human footprints and a blood trail - tell-tale signs of poachers pursuing a wounded animal. After another 20 minutes, the game scouts were directly below a cloud of vultures and had run head on into a band of eight villagers hauling out their kill. The scouts gave chase, firing wildly over the poachers' head as the melee stretched deeper into the bush.

Emerging without a single jangili (Swahili for poacher), these scouts patrolling Tanzania's sprawling 33,000 square-mile Selous Game Reserve will have ample opportunity to set the score straight in the days and weeks to come. With an estimated 700,000 animals illegally hunted in Tanzania per year, they have their hands full -

but not their pockets.

As the prime protector of Tanzania's high-profile animals, such as the wild dog, cheetah, African elephant, and black rhinoceros, all of which have been drastically reduced in numbers during the last decade, a game scout averages about 39 cents a day or $12 per month - not enough to make ends meet even in one of the world's least developed countries.

As low on morale as they are on funds, game scouts are often forced to poach wildlife to supplement their diets or to sell to villagers for cash. Many lack the motivation to apprehend poachers who may be relatives or friends. Logistical support is another problem, almost nonexistent in some cases. And those who persist in carrying out their duties despite the odds may find themselves fleeing from the very criminals they were hired to apprehend. Game-scout weaponry is archaic at best, while poachers may sport modern automatic weapons.

Riding to the scout's rescue, however, are a plethora of organizations intent on helping Tanzania preserve its natural environment. The Frankfurt Zoological Society, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Friends of Conservation, and the Deutshe Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), the German government's official aid organization, to name a few, have contributed to the cause. Population growth a threat

As a cofounder and the principal benefactor of the Selous Conservation Programme (SCP), GTZ has contributed well over $3 million during a five-year effort to insure the integrity of Africa's largest protected habitat.

One of the main tasks of the SCP has been to provide scouts with logistical support.

``The game scout is basically the pillar on whom the whole system in the bush rests,'' says Dr. Rolf Baldus, project coordinator for the SCP. ``You have to get involved with management at higher levels, policy dialogue with the government, ecological monitoring and all that. But for me the first person to look at is always the game scout.''

The battle to save Tanzania's ecosystems extends well beyond the scouts or even their government's capabilities. After 30 years of Marxism, which has kept the country's economy in the same primeval state as its natural habitats, poaching, runaway population growth, and development now threaten such showcase lands as the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Ngorongoro Crater wilderness areas with modern environmental problems.

As a result of its poor economic showing, Tanzania has sought to guarantee the sanctity of its protected areas by relying on international assistance in the form of aid, expertise, and mandates, as well as using the ability of wildlife to ``pay for itself'' through a lucrative tourist and sport hunting market.

One measure that continues to be of great assistance to the Tanzanian wildlife authorities in preserving the elephant is the 1990 international ban on ivory. By shutting down markets for ivory, the ban put an abrupt end to the blitzkrieg of poaching that slashed the African elephant population from 1.3 million to just over 600,000 animals during the 1980s alone.

Some southern African countries are currently crying out for a lifting of the ban, citing ivory as an important source of revenue. They claim that elephant herds have grown so large that they threaten the balance of the ecosystems. But if the ban were to go down, so too would the elephant, at least in Tanzania.

Edward Kishe, principal park warden in charge of law enforcement for Tanzania's national parks, doubts that his country could manage a responsible harvesting of ivory.

``I don't advocate that at all,'' Mr. Kishe says of a lifting of the ban. ``We don't have the means to properly oversee this. Immediately if we started this ivory trade again, some people would poach and we could not stop all of them,'' he adds.

Agreeing with Kishe on the importance of the ivory ban is the Frankfurt Zoological Society's Representative for East Africa, Marjus Borner.

``I was against the ban on ivory in the beginning,'' Dr. Borner says, ``because it didn't really make sense to me then. But looking at the results it has made a [great] difference.... I've been counting elephants here for the last 15 years and everywhere I went it was always down, down, down. It is in the last two or three years that there has been the same amount [of elephants] and at least in the Serengeti we have the first increase of any kind of elephant population anywhere.'' Hunting brings income

Another effective tactic that has greatly reduced poaching on otherwise unprotected lands, brought in much needed hard currency to conservation efforts, and is changing the way locals view wildlife is Tanzania's hunting enterprises.

Although the European and North American public, who have funded so much of the conservation effort in Tanzania today, may wince at the thought of the great white hunter on the savannas of the dark continent, Africa is a place that demands pragmatism.

Operating on ``blocks'' of land allotted to them by the government, professional hunting companies routinely and aggressively patrol their areas for poachers. Villages neighboring hunting blocks have been shown the value of preserving wildlife by companies donating meat or funding village projects, such as building schoolrooms or drilling wells in return for their support.

And with a 10-day safari averaging around $15,000 per client, hunting is a big business that few conservationists in Tanzania want to see nullified as long as it continues to act as a benefit instead of a plague. It provides employment for local villagers and brings in much needed currency through licensing and other fees, which are pumped back into conservation.

``I do not hunt and I don't understand why people do,'' Borner says. ``But you can't keep areas which are 10,000 square kilometers larger than Switzerland without any revenue coming out of them. Tanzania can't afford it. There are some protected areas that are completely dependent on hunting for revenue, and that is why they are still there. I think [hunting] is a very important contribution to conservation in this country.''

But Tanzania's soaring population has long gone unaddressed by its government or aid organizations and may soon prove to be the most dire hazard to its natural habitats. With some villages near parks and reserves growing 10 percent a year, competition with wildlife has increased. And in a country that has traditionally viewed a large population as a benefit to its labor force, family planning has been slow in coming.

Although conservation organizations realize the threat Tanzania's population boom poses to wildlife, they have done very little in the way of addressing the problem.

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