2013 was, it’s an understatement to say, a tough year for elephants. Conservationists warned that Africa could lose one-fifth of its elephants unless something is done to halt poachers and that elephants could disappear in the wild in Africa by 2025. In October, Tanzania, which is home to approximately one-sixth of the world’s elephant population, took a drastic step to stop poachers by creating a new policy that called for those caught poaching to be executed on the spot.
After natural resources and tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki proposed this “shoot-to-kill” policy, it immediately became the subject of much debate. Conservationists and human rights advocates — aware that many poachers are from impoverished backgrounds — raised concerns that the policy could lead to an “escalation of violence” and called instead for law enforcement and judicial systems to be strengthened.
On the face of it, the “shoot-to-kill” policy has proven effective. Soldiers, police, game rangers and forestry officers were all enlisted in a focused crackdown on poachers. In October, when the policy was put into practice, only two elephants were killed in Tanzania.
Tanzanian officials halted the “shoot-to-kill” policy after an inquiry by parliamentary members uncovered “a litany of arbitrary murder, rape, torture and extortion of innocent people.” The investigation specifically found that, during October, 13 civilians were killed and more than 1,000 people arrested. Kagasheki, the minister behind the “shoot-to-kill” policy, was sacked, as were defense minister Shamsi Vuai Nahodha, home affairs minister Emmanuel Nchimbi and livestock development minister David Mathayo.
As prime minister Mizengo Pinda, the prime minister, said, “the anti-poaching operation had good intentions, but the reported murders, rapes and brutality are totally unacceptable.”
Protecting Elephants Is a Political Issue
It’s been well-established that the slaughter of elephants by poachers is directly linked to the demand for elephant tusks in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Even though the international trade in ivory was banned in 1989, a lucrative black-market trade for elephant tusks continues to flourish. In 2012 alone, 22,000 elephants died.
With the suspension of the “shoot-to-kill” policy, Lazaro Nyalandu, the deputy minister of natural resources and tourism, has been calling on foreign donors in Asian countries and the European Union to assist Tanzania’s overtaxed wildlife department and ranger service.
Halting the ongoing slaughter of elephants is not only an issue for conservationists and the wildlife and tourism departments of countries such as Tanzania. The killing of elephants is an issue of international concern that is beyond what one country’s government can tackle; it is the reason that the Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants, a consortium of wildlife conservation organizations, governments and the public, was created in 2013.
Many of the profits from the illegal and highly lucrative ivory trade are, according to activists, helping to fund armed rebel groups such as al-Shabaab, who was behind the September siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that left at least 67 people dead.
Media reports have charged that Tanzanian government officials and other politicians are themselves involved in the ivory trade. In view of the vast profits that can be obtained from selling their tusks, saving elephants must go hand in hand with cracking down on government corruption and fostering economic development in poor and rural regions. Some governments have sought to do just this: recognizing the importance of elephants in tourism and for its economy, Namibia has written protecting the environment into its constitution and sought to find solutions when elephants and humans come into conflict.
At the start of the 20th century, there were about 10 million African elephants but only about 500,000 are alive today. How many will survive by the time 2014 is over?
Photo via Thinkstock