Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve a few years ago was one of the epicentres in the illegal slaying of elephants for their tusks to meet red-hot demand for ivory in rapidly growing Asian economies. Located near the border with Tanzania, the park was also in relatively close proximity to illicit logging activities and Chinese infrastructure projects – often a lethal combination for African wildlife. Poaching saw the population fall from around 12,000 in 2011 to under 4,000 by 2016.
Since May 17 of 2018, according to WCS, not a single elephant poaching has been recorded in the reserve.
“Conservationists attribute the elimination of poaching in the park due to a collaborative effort with the Government of Mozambique and concession operators in the park, combined with deployment of a special police rapid intervention unit; an increased aviation program providing surveillance and the deployment of a helicopter and Cessna aircraft; and tough new sentencing of poachers,” WCS said in a statement.
There is probably no single factor here behind this success. Taking the fight to the air has obviously paid off, but the sky is not the limit on this front. The Kruger National Park also carries out lots of aerial surveillance, but rhino poaching remains rampant there even if levels are falling, and elephants are also getting whacked there. Tougher sentencing certainly sends a message, but one that can fall on deaf ears if poverty is the poacher’s motivation. Illegal mining and fishing camps have also been removed from the park. Such activities are often linked to poaching, but their removal could provoke a backlash from poor rural dwellers who feel they have been unfairly excluded from the region’s natural spoils.
Elsewhere in Africa, elephants remain in the poaching cross-hairs. In October of 2017, the UN-linked Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) programme noted “an incremental decline in elephant poaching for the fifth year in a row, but overall poaching still remains at levels which suggest continuing population decline. The worst affected areas are in Central and West Africa”.
It also noted: “The situation in East Africa is a bright spot. At three sites in Tanzania and one in Kenya fewer than half the number of elephant carcasses were recorded in 2016 compared to 2015.”
So Niassa’s success may be part of a positive trend in East Africa, with the ivory poaching focus now on poor and unstable states in Central and West Africa.
Still, Niassa, which is bigger than Switzerland, is clearly a conservation success story in the making. By all accounts, the reserve is a spectacular place that throbs with tropical biodiversity. It is also home to lions, leopards, and many African herbivores and bird and plant species. It is certainly worthy of protection. DM
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