The Problem of Poaching

PRESIDENT Jakaya Kikwete put up a surprisingly candid performance in an international conference on illegal wildlife trade that took place in London towards the end of last week. The president was frank on what is happening in that sphere in the country, almost coming out clean on what the government has done or has not done, to the extent of appearing self-accusatory. He declared that the kingpin of massive killing of elephants in the country was residing in Arusha, and gave no inclination that the government was capable of going after him and his 40 acolytes.

This other figure was also given by the president, that there were 40 ‘master poachers,’ which evidently does not refer to errand boys sent into the jungle to hunt down the hapless jumbos with machineguns, always available these days, but their sponsors. If the government has counted up to 40 presently, precisely why the first ten haven’t faced court proceedings remained a moot question that many in the London gathering must have asked themselves, but they are likely to be familiar with the tortuous pace of international law and its implementation. It needs consensus. And you’re not a bad person if you want to shop animal antlers and horns, the only issue comes when you’re taking of game from private property or from a place where such practices are specially reserved or forbidden.

The picture that the president gave, to most delegates, was that he is entirely realistic about the situation, and almost disarmingly insisted that he had nothing to hide. He was talking about a vast network of poaching organized by a few dozen sponsors who are hard to reach as the poachers themselves are hard to get, and ivory that is collected is deemed to be artisanal in its source. That means the hauls of caught ivory are not helpful for legal proceedings for there could be pieces of paper that this was brought by a ‘nameless’ fellow without a proper residential address, etc.

Examining other observations made at the London conference and at times from other sources, it appears that what is happening in Tanzania is more or less what is happening elsewhere, with a few enclaves of greater restraint on the poaching industry. South Africa for instance, which to most of us is better organized and more effective in its wildlife protection infrastructure, has lately been said to be moving rhinos to Botswana where they will be safer. It would appear rhinos and jumbos are safe in zoos or situations like that, not in some well managed open country, etc.

That sort of reality is virtually a death knell for wildlife conservation as we know it, and seemingly this is the fate of the industry, punctuated by groans and moral reminders of the sort that took place in London. What the world poaching industry is telling the conservationists is that the bush is no longer just an object of legislation but like the borders of a country, it has to be defended. When this becomes the case, Africa is now becoming westernized, both in its urban and rural areas, where wildlife were largely an extension of villages, with often times the same dangers.

In a westernized context, which means virtually all land has some specified use and owner, long stretches of territory which the government has decided should be inhabited by wildlife because no tribe was residing there as yet, become functionless. So long as there is something valuable in there it is going to be pulled out, by force if no reasonable contract is available, as in the wildlife conundrum. In the case of findings or uranium for instance, the borders of the respective wildlife zone will be modified for the purpose, and it appears this will keep recurring.

So there should be no excessive blaming of the government on what it is doing with regard to poaching, as the borders of national parks and game reserves or game controlled areas are far too vast for comfort. Secondly, the reigning culture in the police force right now is ‘community policing,’ where the police wait for someone to bring in an accusation, so they go to get the fellow and he has to extricate himself by the usual procedures. Chances that a rumour about there being poachers in the neighborhood being acted upon are few and far between, and it is precisely this outlook that critics hinge in blasting the government for inaction on wildlife decimation. It doesn’t have such police for once, and consequently, even game officials and ‘off duty police’ have a hand in wildlife ….harvesting!