JOHANNESBURG/DAR, ES SALAM – Elephant poachers in Tanzania fired on a helicopter on an anti-poaching mission and killed the British pilot, and authorities said Sunday that they have arrested three suspects.
Roger Gower was shot Friday while flying on a joint operation with Tanzanian wildlife authorities who were tracking the poachers, the Friedkin Conservation Fund, which oversees some wildlife areas in Tanzania, said on its website.
“This tragic event again highlights the appalling risk and cost of protecting Tanzania?s wildlife,” the Texas-based group said.
Three suspects were arrested, said Jumanne Maghembe, Tanzania’s minister for tourism and natural resources. The minister pledged that any other suspects will be arrested in security operations after the attack in Maswa wildlife reserve, near Serengeti National Park.
Lazaro Nyalandu, a former minister of tourism and natural resources, wrote on Twitter that Gower was killed by AK-47 assault rifle fire.
“You loved our country and I knew you on many flights we took together,” Nyalandu wrote.
A co-pilot survived with injuries, Tanzanian authorities said.
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed the death of a Briton in Tanzania and said it was “providing assistance to the family at this difficult time.”
Rangers discovered the carcasses of three elephants that were killed by the same group of poachers that fired on the helicopter, said Paschal Shelutete, spokesman for Tanzania’s parks service.
Maswa, the park where Gower was operating, lies on the southwest boundary of Serengeti. The region’s massive wildebeest migration passes through Maswa in January and February, according to the Friedkin Conservation Fund. The park’s rangers encounter poachers on a regular basis, it said.
Tanzania has been identified as a key hotspot for elephant poachers. The elephant population declined by 60 percent to about 40,000 since 2009, according to a census announced last year.
Gower, 37, was killed on Friday when his helicopter crashed after it was attacked during a patrol of the Maswa Game Reserve in northern Tanzania, close to the world famous Serengeti National Park.
“The suspects are in the hands of police,” Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Jumanne Maghembe told AFP.
“They (the suspects) are cooperating, and soon more people making up the poaching gang will be netted and brought to justice.”
Gower’s South African colleague, safari guide Nicky Bester, leaped out of the helicopter midair as it crashed and was injured, according to a spokesman from Tanzania’s National Parks, Pascal Shelutete.
“Three elephant carcasses that were found indicated that whoever shot the chopper down was on a serious illegal hunting spree,” Shelutete said, adding such poachers can be “heavily armed with sophisticated military weaponry.”
Photographs of the crashed helicopter show twisted metal, as well as apparent bullet holes in the fuselage, and smears of blood on the pilot’s seat.
It was not immediately clear if Gower was killed by the gunshots or when the helicopter crashed.
“The suspected poachers shot the helicopter which was on surveillance at a remote game reserve,” Maghembe added. “This is a sad incident. We will continue with the war against poachers … these are cruel criminals.”
The wildlife charity Gower worked for confirmed his death.
“Roger was killed while piloting a helicopter during a coordinated effort with the Tanzanian wildlife authorities to track down and arrest active elephant poachers,” said a statement from Dan Friedkin, chairman of the Friedkin Conservation Fund.
“In the course of this action, the poachers fired upon the helicopter and Roger was fatally wounded.”
Conservation officials appealed for help in catching the culprits.
“These people killing elephants in our conservation areas live in the neighborhood, and those with information should come forward,” Shelutete added.
“We all need to work together to end the killings of elephants and people fighting poaching.”
Ivory is sought out for jewelry and decorative objects and much of it is smuggled to China, where many increasingly wealthy shoppers are buying ivory trinkets as a sign of financial success.
It is estimated that more than 30,000 elephants are killed for their tusks every year.
The international ivory trade was banned in 1989, but one-off sales of ivory stockpiles have since been permitted and trade in old ivory is also allowed, giving criminal smugglers cover for their illegal trade.
Neighboring Kenya, which like Tanzania relies on elephants as a key draw for tourists who provide a massive boost for foreign earnings, announced earlier in January it will set fire to its entire remaining stockpile of ivory.
The fire of 120 tons, expected in April, will be eight times the size of any ivory stockpile destroyed so far, with tusks from several thousand elephants.