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It’s the Wild West in East Africa

By Cristián Samper & Alastair Nelson

The Niassa National Reserve is as remote as it gets in Mozambique. The size of Tennessee or three times the size of the Serengeti‎, Niassa is the home of one of the last stands for the African savannah elephant. Estimates indicate there are 13,000 elephants left, down from 20,000 at their recent highest.

The terrain in which poachers are killing off Niassa’s elephants  is rugged and easy to hide in. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
The terrain in which poachers are killing off Niassa’s elephants is rugged and easy to hide in. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS

Complex issues, including weak governance and the illegal markets for ivory far away in Asia and the U.S., drive the crisis facing elephants in Niassa. Just in 2014 so far, 500 elephants have been killed by well-organized criminal groups across the reserve. Another one or two elephants will be killed today.

Two days ago, our team was called to an area of the reserve about 40 minutes from the headquarters by helicopter. Due to earlier suspicious activity in the area near that site, we had already positioned scouts at an observation post on top of an inselberg – one of the island-like mountains that rise up across the landscape – about 800 meters high. The scouts saw a fire, possibly a campfire for poachers, and alerted our reaction team, which has access to a helicopter temporarily assisting our operation this month.

Elephant poached as found by scouts after poachers  scared away by patrolling helicopter. Photo by Cristián  Samper © WCS
Poached elephant as found by scouts after poachers were scared away by a patrolling helicopter. Photo by Cristián Samper © WCS

There, an elephant carcass was spotted next to a dry stream in a grassy patch of an open woodland. The elephant had been killed just hours earlier. The odd part of this finding was that the tusks were not removed. We suspect the poachers fled without the tusks as our helicopter had been in the area dropping off our scouts. The helicopter likely spooked them. If only we had access to a helicopter permanently. Resources have not allowed this up to now.

When we arrived at the carcass, our team assessed that the elephant had been killed by an AK-47. Another very typical moment in Niassa‎. And that’s why all the teams working here with the Mozambique government live day-to-day on high alert as if they are in a war zone.

This photo documents where the poacher’s  bullet entered the elephant. The WCS team assesed that it had been brought down by an AK-47. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
This photo documents where the poacher’s bullet entered the elephant. The WCS team assesed that it had been brought down by an AK-47. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS

The team gets intelligence from informers about poachers operating in the area. They dispatch scouts to inselberg tops and to the woodlands to look for campfires or other poacher activity. Our technical director and law enforcement specialist wait each day for scout reports that they log into a database, helping them strategize how to stay ahead of the poachers.

This intelligence worked this week as six poachers were apprehended in a nighttime raid. In the Luwire concession, operators rejoiced with toasts. That was a big win for the elephants and Mozambique. An armed group responsible for killing 39 elephants since January was taken out of commission.

Scouts holding tusks after finding poached elephant. Poachers left before removing tusks. Scared off by a helicopter patrol Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
Scouts holding tusks after finding poached elephant. Poachers left before removing tusks. Scared off by a helicopter patrol Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS

So this is what a part of conservation looks like on the ground in Niassa. This is real law enforcement.

The Mozambique government and WCS operation, along with scouts from concession operators in the reserve, are integrating resources and staff to protect Niassa’s elephants.

Conservation scouts removed the elephant’s tusks before poachers could return to claim them. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
Conservation scouts removed the elephant’s tusks before poachers could return to claim them. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS

We had visited the capital city of Maputo earlier in the week before heading to Niassa. There, we met with several leaders passionate about working together to help protect Niassa’s wildlife. Mozambique officials, the U.S. government (with leadership from Ambassador Griffiths and USAID), the U.K., former officials from the Mozambique government, and others all want to help.

The newly-appointed Mozambique head of parks, Dr. Soto, at a gathering at the home of the U.K. High Commissioner, sent all a great sign in his remarks when he welcomed these partnerships from other governments and he discussed the urgency of the crisis. From a world away – 4,000 kilometers to the south of Niassa – Soto, too, feels the catastrophe taking shape in Niassa and recognizes the importance of protecting Mozambique’s heritage.

Elephant killed recently by poachers in Niassa. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
Elephant killed recently by poachers in Niassa. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS

No one, and no government or organization, feels they can stop the poaching alone. Complete integration and cooperation of conservation efforts with the government of Mozambique will be needed to save the elephant in Niassa. It is this kind of partnership that will help us advance important efforts to protect Niassa’s elephants, promote security and governance, and secure national assets for the people of Mozambique.

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Cristián Samper is the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Alastair Nelson is the Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mozambique program.

Comments

  1. Chester
    Zambia
    September 16, 2014, 4:18 am

    Folks talk is cheap.

    This is a disaster. With so-many Chinese expats in Africa (many are law-abiding) but a criminal few are funding this.

    One former American general has suggested the US help African wildlife authorities track poachers with its drones and satellite tecnology. If the US can track Al Shabab militants in Somalia and execute surgical attacks why not help track these paid killers.

    Besides the lax atitude will come back to hurt the US as money from this activity will find its way into terror groups.

    For once lets use drone and satellite technology, designed for the Cold War, for the good of the planet.

    Africa needs a helping hand folks.

    Act now!

    Even ex-NBA star Yao Ming and Kung fu movie star Jackie Chan are doing their part to discourage trade in ivory in China and the Far East.

    Petition the Obama Administration through the White House Site.

    Thanks.

    http://bit.ly/1m1X6cp

  2. Rogério Lobo
    Maputo - Mozambique
    September 11, 2014, 2:20 pm

    It’s very sad to know that elephants population has reduced from 20,000 to 13,000 in a very short period of time. The poachers are evil doer, PLEASE donate a helicopter to the Rangers at Niassa Reserve and help the elephants to live longer.
    The tusks are meant to stay on the elephants head not in human neck, wrist or livingroom.

  3. Leila Lukács Salvado
    MOZAMBIQUE
    September 11, 2014, 4:47 am

    This is insane! STOP KILLING ELEPHANTS AND RHINOS !
    SOMEONE WITH MONEY (because money makes the world go “round”) should just donate per example helicopters for the rangers !
    People start doing ANYTHING!

  4. Alexandra Gibbs
    United Kingdom
    September 10, 2014, 6:35 am

    Perhaps the answer is to give the animals to the locals who could farm the animals. Then they would be interested financially in preserving, in fighting the poachers and then selling the ivory on. Market solutions for market problems?

  5. Arline
    USA
    September 9, 2014, 5:10 pm

    The wanton killing of elephants for only their tusks has gone on too long and MUST BE STOPPED! If poachers didn’t have buyers, this practice would end. We have to re-educate people about values that matter. All creatures are inter-dependent on other creatures and everything associated with our planet, the sun, the moon, the stars, weather, mountains, trees, oceans, rivers, etc. Our ecosystem is degraded on a daily basis by thoughtless, unintelligent acts such as the killing of elephants FOR THEIR TUSKS! It boggles the mind that this senseless practice is ongoing when it could be stopped by people who could look elsewhere for a beautiful article to wear or sculpt. We have to educate the people who PAY FOR TUSKS and the ones who USE TUSKS. We have to insist that they STOP their sickening practice of killing elephants, animals which have been deemed to be some of THE most intelligent animals on four feet.
    The people who are part of this problem should know that it doesn’t make ANY sense to assume that creatures of the size and intelligence of elephants are on this earth to SOLELY provide their TUSKS to human beings. That would be the ultimate stupidity.

  6. Ricardo Mavila
    Maputo-Mozambique
    September 9, 2014, 4:12 pm

    Sao animais que estao matando os elefantes, e os governantes tapam a cara e os ouvidos para nao verem e ouvirem. Os governantes sao cumplices.

  7. larry whelan
    ireland
    September 9, 2014, 2:44 pm

    Humans are the cause of why the world is in a mess .we destroy everything that makes this world such a wonderful place in the universe.The better [sic] educated we are the less we care about our planet,, We are the worst kind of animal on this planet,We abuse our children,we slaughter our lovely animals for to have trophies on our mantelpiece ..
    .Where is it all going to end … Africa is a continent full of resources to feed and make a good life for its citizens , why have they to kill there lovely wildlife to make money. They should embrace there wildlife and sell there treasure to tourism.
    This would save the wild life and make money for the country..
    ANYBODY REMEMBER THE WORDS OF THE SONG ,, “When will we ever learn””

  8. Manuel u benitez
    San Diego, ca
    September 9, 2014, 2:28 pm

    lets do what ever we can to stop them, I”m in, if there’s a donation, let me know you got my support.

  9. Mandy Hanton
    Spain
    September 9, 2014, 11:05 am

    This is so very barbaric and all for money so an idiot can buy a trinket!. Humans do not own the planet and everything that dwells on it to do with as they wish.

  10. Daniel Stiles
    Kenya
    September 9, 2014, 9:34 am

    It is the high price of raw ivory that is driving this poaching holocaust across Africa. If conservationists and the public really want this horrible killing to stop, they have to get serious about policies and actions that will lead to lower prices, and also put the speculators who are stockpiling ivory out of business

  11. Judy Rees
    Australia
    September 9, 2014, 3:35 am

    Very good article. Tried not to look at the graphic pictures, seen enough over the years. Explained how difficult the terrain is and the battle with heavily armed poachers. Be great if you could raise funds for a permanent helicopter. But the fight needs to be won in China and Vietnam. Close down the factories and completely shut down the market for ivory and rhino horn.

  12. Erica
    USA
    September 8, 2014, 10:13 pm

    Articles like this should be posted more often. It exposes us to the reality of what is going on out there. I enjoyed this because it is not sugar coated and provides us with real photographs of what is going out there.

    I wish everyone cooperated and help these innocent animals.

  13. Carole Menninger
    United States
    September 8, 2014, 5:27 pm

    whatever punishment is exacted on these monsters who killed these elephants will NEVER be harsh enough. I don’t care if they need the money, to kill these wonderful defenseless animals is beyond understanding.

    Greedy humans who continue to buy ivory need to be punished as well, HUGE fines if they are found out and prison time too.

    I am sick to death of hearing so many elephants have been killed. This must stop!