JUMBO FEAT: How one African reserve did the unimaginable and lost zero elephants to illegal poaching last year
In early 2018, a group of Niassa National Reserve partners comprised of the Government of Mozambique, WCS, and the Niassa Conservation Alliance came together to implement a concerted and coordinated anti-poaching strategy
One of Africa's largest, wildest, and most spectacular wildlife preserves has reported an astounding success - there have been zero cases of elephant poaching for a full year, with the last illegally killed pachyderm reported May 17, 2018. The efforts of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and its numerous partners have seen Mozambique's sprawling Niassa Reserve stay free of elephant poaching for more than 365 days, according to a statement provided by the organization to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
To put into perspective how remarkable a turnaround it is, the announcement came following a period that saw elephants killed in several hundreds each year. While the area exhibited the lowest human footprint, poaching for ivory was rampant. So much so, from 2009 to 2014, the elephants' population fell from what was a relatively healthy average estimate of 12,000 between 2000 and 2011 to an alarming 3,675 in 2016. The implications were severe.
Spilling over 17,104 square miles or 43,200 square kilometers, Niassa comprises 28 percent of Mozambique's conservation areas and exceeds the size of Switzerland. It remained one of the few areas left in Africa capable of supporting a robust elephant population, with research estimating the landscape could support as many as 20,000 individuals.
Niassa also contains the largest remaining blocks of miombo woodland — dotted by enormous inselbergs that soar hundreds of meters into the sky — and harbors some of the country's significant populations of wildlife, including elephants, lions, leopards, wild dogs, sables, kudus, wildebeest, and zebras.
A part of the Niassa-Selous Transfrontier Conservation Area, which itself is the heart of the broader relatively unfragmented Rovuma landscape, concerned officials and researchers knew success in Niassa could translate to similar results elsewhere on the continent. Anti-poaching measures put into effect between 2015 and 2017 reduced killings to an average of around 100 individuals a year, which while positive in comparison to the devastation of the past five years, wasn't still quite enough.
Then, in early 2018, a group of Niassa National Reserve partners comprised of the Government of Mozambique, WCS, and the Niassa Conservation Alliance came together to implement a concerted and coordinated anti-poaching strategy. It involved deploying a year-round Cessna aircraft and chartering a helicopter during the wet seasons of the year, and then again through December 2018 to May 2019 to transport scouts and supplies to remote poaching locations, deploying rapid response teams when poaching is detected, and putting aerial surveillance into place.
These rapid response police teams, personally authorized by Mozambique President Felipe Nyusi, are elite units that are better-armed in comparison to the reserve's normal rangers and have developed a reputation for "being quite hard," reported the Daily Mail. They have also been empowered to arrest suspected poachers — including those even caught with a firearm — in Niassa and Cabo Delgado, put together a case within 72 hours and submit it to a local prosecutor for further action. Those found guilty faced up to 16 years behind bars.
The partnership also cleared and kept clear, illegal mining and fishing camps in the reserve, and enacted improvements and expansions to the existing radio system for better coordination among all partners on anti-poaching operations.
The end result? There was first an 87 percent reduction in the number of illegally killed elephants in 2018 compared to 2017, with no elephants reported killed at all in the following year. James Bampton, WCS Mozambique Country Director, said he discovered the year free of poaching deaths while going through the data and that preliminary analysis of data from a survey conducted in October and not yet published indicated that about 4,000 elephants are now in the reserve.
“The success in Niassa shows that given the political will and proper funding, we can stop the poaching of elephants," Bampton told MEAWW. "Political will is essential to ensure that everyone from national government agencies to local authorities is aligned and doing their maximum to support conservation objectives."
"Public/private partnerships that link governments with the private sector and funding agencies like USAID have been essential," he continued. "Without such partnerships, this would not have been possible."
"This has allowed for enhanced training, enhanced equipping, enhanced communications, enhanced coordination, and additional boots on the ground -- in this case the well trained Rapid Intervention Unit police, along with enhanced aviation support including more fixed-wing surveillance and deployment of a helicopter, coupled with the recent harsher sentencing of criminals, these actions are acting as a deterrent to many would-be poachers," Bampton said.
"Niassa is an important elephant stronghold and we need to sustain protection so that their numbers can bounce back.” While undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it will still take many years for the elephant population in the reserve to climb back up to its former levels, especially considering the fact that annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate.