Elephants in Tanzania have no votes nor voices as political campaign heats up


(Posted 24th April 2015)

A ‘Statistics Bill’ and one dealing with ‘Cybercrimes’ recently passed by the Tanzanian parliament which aim to severely punish he publication of statistics and data seen or perceived by the powers that be to ‘defamatory, likely to disturb the public peace’ and being considered ‘misleading or inaccurate’ by those in government who think that their dirty linen should not be hung up in public by the mainstream media or bloggers will very likely put a dampener on individuals’ and organizations willingness to blow whistles or go on public record.

Should President Kikwete sign the bills into law could wildlife conservationists and activists face jail time for publishing any figures on poaching which are not approved and officially released by government even though they might be based on the findings of such reputable organisations like the Frankfurt Zoo which conducted the last elephant population survey in the Selous can came up with devastatingly low figures.

Tanzania had for long denied that there was a poaching crisis while tens of thousands of elephants had been mowed down already for their tusks and only under public pressure, and when the opposition in parliament raised the issue, gradually and grudgingly owned up to the problem. Former Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Amb. Khamis Kagesheki paid for his zeal to expose the masterminds behind the industrial scale slaughter with his job when he produced the now notorious ‘List of 300’ which while handed to the President at the time remains under lock and key. The reaction from the poaching gangs and their political godfathers was swift and without mercy as he was hung out to dry over allegations of a series of botched anti-poaching operations which his enemies used to demand his sacking in public and in parliament and soon got their way.

While admittedly a new anti-poaching operation has claimed some scalps, mostly of foot soldiers but notably few if any significant middle men or financiers and none associated with the slaughter of past years have many conservationists expressed their fear that much of it is to hoodwink the international conservation fraternity into believing that finally some real action is taken. The Selous – visited as recently as a few months ago – has been stripped of the large herds which even ten years ago roamed one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas and the not too distant Ruaha where the elephant population has halved since 2014 to just over 4.000 of these magnificent animals. According to reports seen and figures heard from regular Tanzania based sources has the wider Ruaha ecosystem in fact lost even greater numbers. Trustworthy sources, understandably no longer willing to go on record, claim that from a population in the 2013/14 time frame only just over 8.000 remain, and this all happened since Amb. Kagesheki ‘had been dealt with’ for daring to challenge the apparently limitless powers of those behind and benefitting the most from the killings. When then news emerged that such data and findings had in fact been handed to the Tanzanian government but was not published, apparently to allow for independent verification, it is all but clear that there is again the same gang of suspects at work to block and stall action so that their bloody handiwork can be finished.

A case where TANAPA last year threatened a conservation NGO with unspecified action, repercussions and punishment after research data were published, reminiscent to a case in Kenya where former Director General of KWS, one Julius Kipngetich had the Executive Director of Ecotourism Kenya arrested over what he then claimed were unvalidated claims over poaching incidents and figures which contrasted sharply with KWS’s official ‘count’, claiming under an obscure law that such publications were bringing him into disrepute.

Into disrepute did Julius quickly fall then when the proverbial social media shitstorm emptied its buckets over his head and eventually he withdrew the complaint but not before his reputation took a serious beating.

As referred to earlier had the Serengeti elephant census by the Frankfurt Zoo and other reputable organizations established that from nearly 70.000 elephant counted in 2007 were the numbers down to some 13.000 only when the census took place, a shocking indictment of failed anti-poaching measures and leaving the outgoing Tanzanian president – his second and final term of office ends in November this year – as having presided over the world’s greatest elephant slaughter and done little if anything to prevent it in the first place or stem the tide when he was aware of it. Allegations of top connected political cronies and officials being behind and being the main financial beneficiaries have left a cloud of stink hanging over Tanzania’s once unblemished conservation record but it is clear that this legacy left by founding father of the nation, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and his close friend Prof. Dr. Grzimek, has since been trampled into the dust of history alongside with many other political principles.

With the political campaigns now heating up and the focus firmly set on who the candidates for president of the various political groups will be, there is little hope that the poaching menace will face a full scale counter operation, not until the elections are over and a new government, after recovering from the celebrations of victory, can then look at the problems they inherited from their predecessors. It is votes which now count and as elephant have neither votes nor voices, their fate appears to be hanging by a threat with the proverbial scissor ready to cut it.