Mozambique losing fight to save elephants

AFP-JIJI

Mozambique’s elephant population risks being obliterated within a decade unless tight antipoaching measures are introduced, conservationists have warned.

The alarming scale of the poaching problem has become increasingly apparent, with an aerial survey of the north of the country in 2011 tallying 2,667 elephant carcasses in the vast Niassa reserve alone.

Mozambique’s pachyderms have seen little peace dividend since the nation’s brutal civil war ended 20 years ago.

“If we work out the numbers, in eight years probably we will have no elephants left,” said Carlos Lopes Pereira, a technical adviser for the global Wildlife Conservation Society.

It is left to an antipoaching force dependent on funding from overseas to protect the elephants and preserve a resource that could draw vital tourist dollars.

The few game rangers that exist are ill-equipped to do their job, using bolt-action rifles dating back to World War II.

In contrast the poachers, thought to be part of vast syndicates based in the Horn of Africa, use high-caliber military weaponry and advanced hunting techniques.

“They are able to shoot many animals at the same time,” said Pereira, explaining that poachers know how to approach a herd, shoot the matriarch first and then home in on five or six other animals amid the chaos that follows.

Already wildlife authorities are seeing changes in the composition of herds as a result of poaching. There are now more orphans and calves falling prey to lions, Pereira said.

That is part of a broader trend seen across Africa, with the U.N. Environment Program and other wildlife groups reporting alarming declines in elephant numbers in parts of Central and West Africa.

Previously secure populations in eastern and southern parts of the continent are now coming under threat as demand for tusks, particularly in Asia, heats up.

The illicit trade in ivory is estimated to have doubled since 2007 and more than tripled over the past 15 years, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Poaching on an “industrial” scale has slashed the elephant population in the countries of central Africa by nearly two-thirds, a group of international nongovernmental organizations said Friday.

Jerome Mokoko, assistant director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said there were 80,000 elephants in the Central African Republic just 30 years ago but their number has been reduced to just a few thousand.

“The Democratic Republic of Congo alone is home to 70 percent of the elephant population of Central Africa. But now there are only between 7,000 and 10,000 elephants in the DRC,” Mokoko said.

A recent CITES report estimated that as many as 25,000 elephants were killed for their tusks across the continent in 2011.

So far the government in Mozambique has been slow to react.

Since poaching is listed as a misdemeanor under penal laws that date back to Portuguese colonial times, authorities are limited in the punishments they can mete out.

“We can only fine people, not jail them,” Pariela said. “We have caught many but often nothing happens to poachers. They pay a fine and go free.”

Plans are afoot to toughen up Mozambique’s laws, but conservationists worry it may be too little too late. “The ivory trade is completely out of control. Ivory poaching is getting worse by the day,” Pereira said.