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Niassa elephants could die out if poaching crisis continues, experts warn


Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique, one of the last great wilderness areas on the continent, has the potential to support a population of tens of thousands of elephants – but wildlife experts warn that if current poaching trends continue, numbers could drop so low by the end of this year as to put the population on the path to extinction.

The huge reserve is roughly the size of Denmark, making the exact scale of the poaching crisis hard to assess. “We only have coverage of about 20% of the area, and we haven’t extrapolated the numbers for the rest of the reserve, but we know for sure that more than 200 elephants have been killed in the past two years,” said Baldeu Chande, the warden of Niassa Reserve and a director at the National Conservation Areas Administration (ANAC), the body that manages Mozambique’s reserves under the Ministry of Land, Environment and Rural Development (MITADER).

The last aerial survey of the park in October 2016 showed the elephant population was likely to be around 3500  – but there are probably fewer than 2,000 now, according to James Bampton, the Mozambique Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), ANAC’s partner in managing the reserve. “The very low remaining number, plus the unacceptable poaching rate, means that before long, if we’re not careful, we will get to the stage that there isn’t a viable population left,” he said.

To immediately address the crisis, WCS and ANAC need more and improved surveillance infrastructure and equipment within the reserve, and to hire and train more rangers. However, until a new park co-management agreement between WCS and ANAC is signed, which establishes WCS as Mozambique’s official partner in the reserve, it limits the action that can be taken.

“It’s reducing our ability to fundraise – and in this situation, when trying to conserve such a large area containing so many people  raising money is the most important thing to do,” said Bampton.

The agreement, first drafted in June 2017, has undergone several revisions. From WCS’ perspective the agreement is now at a stage that it can be signed, but final authorisation from the government could still be another four months away. Bartolomeu Soto, director general of ANAC, told Zitamar they are “finishing the negotiations” and  guaranteed that the agreement would be signed in the first half of 2018.

Aerial capability

Nevertheless, the partners are moving forward. They are in the process of chartering a helicopter, which is expected to arrive within the next few days, and will allow Niassa National Reserve (NNR) to rapidly deploy scouts to remote areas – something that is particularly challenging during the wet season, which runs roughly from the end of November and to April.

“The reserve is so big and there are limited roads and numerous rivers, and you can’t get across many of them when it’s so wet and muddy,” said Bampton. “A helicopter will make a big difference. In fact, we hope that even just knowing that we have a helicopter will be a deterrent for the poachers.”

Last year WCS also bought a Cessna 206 aircraft for the NNR. It is still in Nairobi where it has been been fitted and the pilot is now being tested – and it is also expected to arrive soon.

In the meantime, WCS have been chartering a Cessna 206 from a company in Nampula, when the aircraft is available. “It was used in the reserve last week, and will be again soon,” said Bampton.

As well accessing the scene more rapidly, scouts also need to be better armed. An awareness that not all the scouts are carrying guns means some poachers are not fleeing when they arrive at the scene, but shootback instead.

Properly equipping scouts is particularly important as recently gangs of poachers entering the reserve, most likely from Tanzania, have been well-armed, highly trained and highly organised.

“What is happening is that the poacher is more advanced than us,” said Armindo Chauque, Provincial Director of Land, Environment and Rural Development in Niassa. “While we only use guns, they are more sophisticated, for example, they use drones which enables them to see where we stand and circumvent us. So what we are doing to end the problem is to equip and upskill the guards we have and the scouts.”

An additional 25 DM4 semiautomatic rifles have been purchased for NNR scouts, but only ten have been delivered. The official reason for the delay in releasing the remaining rifles is the lack of the correct paperwork for the individual firearm certificates – although there is a suspicion  police are reluctant to handover the guns due to concerns over the handling of the weapons.

“The police will always be reluctant to have armed, well-trained men not directly under their control because of the history of [armed opposition movement]Renamo in Mozambique,” said one security consultant who has worked in the area. The recent violence in neighbouring Cabo Delgado, which has seen villages attacked by Islamic militants, will likely make them even more wary of releasing more guns into the north of the country.

Scouts also need to be paid a regular salary – particularly given the risks they are taking to protect the reserve. “We need money to secure human resources who are well incentivised to fight poaching – that is another important issue,” said Chande.

The WCS has around 80 scouts that are regularly patrolling and manning checkpoints, although between a quarter and a third of those will be on leave at any one time. Most of these scouts are on WCS contracts, with salaries paid for by donor funds – although the intention in 2018 is to put more on government contracts. Most of these would be paid using funds returned to NNR management through park concession fees, and some through donor funds administered through the government.

“Simultaneously we hope to augment the force by at least 30, and hopefully as many as 50. Recruitment and selection training will hopefully take place in a couple of months,” said Bampton.

There are an additional 150 scouts employed by WCS’ conservation partners that manage the three other other eco-tourism concession contracts in Niassa, “but they are unevenly spread across the reserve,” said Bampton.

As reports of the poaching crisis have hit the headlines, the government has put more pressure on the police to protect the reserve. In December President Nyusi and defence minister Atanásio Salvador Mtumuke visited President John Magufuli in Tanzania to discuss security across the porous northern border, which supports not just ivory smuggling, but drugs, weapons trade, illegal logging and mineral exports – and is suspected to also be feeding into the recent insecurity in Cabo Delgado province.

The impact has already been felt. High level intervention from the police chief and the provincial police chief –  as well as the deployment of the Rapid Intervention Unit, Mozambique’s elite police force, in the reserve – means cooperation with police authorities and Niassa reserve official has been improving in recent weeks.

“We as police at Niassa level… are taking steps to identify the routes of poachers and we have had routine meetings with tour operators [scouts]who are exploring the interior of the Reserve. They give us reports of what they have seen and we intervene,” João Mupuela of the Provincial Police Command in Niassa said. “Also in collaboration with the Niassa National Reserve we are constantly working to identify outbreaks and we place the police force on the ground to work directly with the scouts, who know the place well.”

However, local authorities can be limited by what with what they can do operationally because they do not always have the resources to transport or hold suspected poachers – something NNR is working to address.

“Through our partners, money has been raised to build a new cell block in Mecula town [inside Niassa Reserve]and buy a vehicle, because the police there don’t have conditions to keep prisoners safely and they don’t have vehicle or fuel to transport them,” said Bampton.

Putting poachers behind bars

The ability to catch and hold poachers is one crucial step – effective sentencing is the next. Mozambique does now have a conservation law, which was first approved in 2014 but went back to Parliament in 2016 for amendments. The updated law came into force in May 2017.

However, “elements of the new law conflict with Mozambique’s existing legislation, and these issues will need to be clarified before the new law can be properly enforced,” said Chande.

There are also limitations as to when the law can be used. Those in possession of firearms, even if they are known to be poachers, can’t be prosecuted under the Conservation Law if they are caught outside of the reserve without other pertinent evidence. Criminals are instead charged with possession of an illegal weapon, which carries a much lower penalty. However, if caught inside the Reserve boundaries with a firearm, intent is assumed so charges can be laid under the Conservation Law.

“If we catch them in the reserve, since May last year, there is a substantial penalty – it’s now up to 16 years in jail. But it’s difficult to get that to happen and we don’t have a case of that happening yet, so for many illegal activities, people walk,” said Bampton.

Even if they are caught, many poachers are able to escape sentencing after their ‘patron’ pays their bail.  “They frequently disappear despite arrest warrants remaining open and the follow up is often non-existent,” said Bampton.

Closer cooperation with communities living within the reserve will also be crucial to the success of catching more poachers in flagrante.

ANAC is already working with community leaders and community organisations. An indicator if the success of this collaboration “is the people who have been arrested because of their reports,” said Soto – even if they have not yet been caught in the act.

ANAC is trying to encourage more residents to come forward by emphasising the financial benefits ecotourism can also bring to the community – and the important role elephants play in making eco-tourism a success.

A total of 20% of the money collected from concessionaires at the park goes directly to the communities. “This amounted to a total of $85,000 over two years between 2015 and 2016,” said Chande, “although we hope that figure will rise as we still have more concessions to give away.”

WCS, which is given the remaining funds to help with the management of the reserve, has employed a business development manager to ensure revenues steadily increase. “The more we raise, the more it benefits everyone,” said Bampton.

However, it could be another decade until the tourism business is developed substantially in Niassa; its remote location, the lack of infrastructure inside the reserve, the thickness of its bush which makes sighting wildlife harder, the substantial population living within its boundaries (estimates vary between 40-60,000 people) and the need to give time for the wildlife population to rebound, all mean that this is a long-term goal.

But there are shorter-term gains to be made by ensuring that the revenues that are collected are always allocated to the right people and spent effectively. At present reservation funds are distributed to communities through the nationally-recognised, ‘Comitês de Gestão de Recursos Naturais’ [Natural Resource Management Committees] of which there are four for Mecula District, three for Mueda District and one for Mavago.  

NNR is proposing the establishment of smaller committees at the village level to encourage greater participation, transparency and accountability in decision-making –  and some committees are already informally doing this.

“NNR Community Department staff accompany the process but the final decisions rest with the committees,” said Bampton. “It is noticeable that the majority of the funds go towards individual benefits rather than communal benefits – partly because communities believe most of the communal requirements should be provided by Government already, such as water, schools, and health clinics.We do not think that there is a big abuse of the system at present, rather that different alternatives could be considered and public accounting and reporting improved.”

For now, however, the problem remains that the sums involved are small given the size of the population in the reserve  – and therefore “sometimes poachers appear and give more than the 20% and so the population collaborates with them instead,” said Chauque.

Strangely though, there seems little tangible evidence of these financial gains within these communities, unlike poaching thoroughfares elsewhere in the country.

In towns such as Massingir in the Limpopo reserve in southern Mozambique, an area renowned for poachers trafficking rhino horn from Kruger in South Africa, the wealth created from the illicit trade is demonstrable. “People there, you can tell they are making money because they’ve got cars and houses,” said Bampton. “But here in Niassa, you don’t see this money making a difference at all – you see maybe a few people who might have a motorbike, but no-one has a flash house. It’s the same with the illegal mining in the reserve. None of this stuff seems to be making anyone richer – that’s what’s so confusing about it all.”

But this at least gives the NNR an opportunity to present eco-tourism as a better, more sustainable option to sustain communities in the long-term.

“Our biggest concern is tying the benefit sharing to conservation outcomes – the distribution of funds should be linked to indicators that can be controlled to some extent by community behaviour, with those performing better receiving more. But it is a complex debate,” said Bampton.

© 2018, Zitamar Ltd. Reproduction and dissemination prohibited without written permission.


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