Charity Appeal: Global greed for ivory that makes widows of poachers' wives

Juliana's husband was killed hunting elephants, desperate for cash to feed his family

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Juliana Nginga, who lives near Tanzania's largest national park, remembers the day she was told her husband had been killed. It was the worst news she had ever heard. But unlike most bereaved wives, she was unable to recover her partner's body, report his death, or even hold a public funeral service. She had to mourn her husband's death in secret.

This is because the 50-year-old mother-of-two is one of the widows of Tanzania's poaching crisis. It is thought her husband, Gabriel Deda, was killed by an elephant in Ruaha National Park, as he was illegally trying to shoot it. In his desire to sell its meat and obtain ivory to sell to the poaching syndicates wreaking havoc across Africa, he lost his life – leaving his wife without a husband and his children fatherless.

This happened two decades ago, but contrary to popular opinion, the slaughter of elephants in Africa has not ceased. Poaching for ivory is now an epidemic across the continent. More than 100 African elephants are killed every day, and in 2011 alone, almost 12 per cent of the population was destroyed.

Tanzania is at the centre of the scandal. It is estimated it has lost half its elephant population since 2007 and it is thought it could be wiped out entirely within the next seven years. It had an estimated 70,000 elephants in 2012, according to the Tanzania Elephant Protection Society, which says that 30 elephants a day are killed for ivory – almost 11,000 each year.

More men are following in Gabriel Deda's desperate path as they turn to poaching to provide for their families by meeting the booming demand for ivory worldwide, particularly in Asia.

It is not only elephants who pay the price for this global greed. Poachers risk being attacked by wildlife as well as confrontation with the armed rangers trying to protect the animals. And women such as Juliana, who knew little about Gabriel's profession before he died, are left to raise families alone when it goes wrong.

"My husband used to go to the park to kill elephants and sell their meat. It was difficult to know how much he made, but he had no other options," Juliana told The Independent on Sunday. "There were six to eight of them, and he would shoot the elephant while others carried it. It is not a good thing, but people do it. When the crop failed, there was no food. It was just to get money."

Poverty trap: Elephants in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, where the husband of Juliana Nginga (top right) was killed; widow Ferdinanda Kalinga with her son Jackson Lusela, 21 (bottom right) Poverty trap: Elephants in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, where the husband of Juliana Nginga (top right) was killed; widow Ferdinanda Kalinga with her son Jackson Lusela, 21 (bottom right)

She added: "He went to kill the elephants one day and when he was shooting, they killed him. I wasn't able to bring the body back or bury it. I never saw it or reported it to the park. We were mourning in secret. Even the neighbours were coming secretly. Life became so bad. I was struggling to take care of the children on my own. They finished primary school, but none went to secondary school. I couldn't afford it."

Mrs Nginga is not alone. More than 20 villages form the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) that surrounds Ruaha National Park. It was set up to give local communities some control over the use of wildlife and resources on their land – in a similar way that Kenya's conservation areas aim to empower those living amid its wildlife. But with high levels of poverty in the Ruaha area and few jobs beyond farming, men continue to poach. It is not only elephants that they threaten:other animals are killed for meat, while illegal honey gatherers also risk their lives within the park.

Ferdinanda Kalinga, 56, is another widow of the clandestine trade. She lost her 54-year-old husband, Petro Lusela, last year when he was reportedly crushed by an elephant while trying to find honey in the park. Ferdinanda, a grandmother, said she has been struggling ever since. "Another guy came back and told me he was killed by an elephant, but it was not possible to collect the body," she said.

"No one could confirm it, and the body was never received. Life has been very difficult. He was the head of the family. Now I'm alone. Nobody provides for my family. I don't blame anyone – not the elephants, not anyone; this hasn't happened to me alone. Others have also lost their husbands. We don't know what can be done. There needs to be alternatives [to poaching]."

Conservationists agree. Paul Harrison, technical advisor for the Spanest Project (Strengthening the Protected Area Network in Southern Tanzania), launched last year by Tanzanian wildlife authorities and the United Nations Development Programme, said communities must be encouraged to protect their wildlife if the anti-poaching effort is to be successful long-term.

"Poverty is used as a tool and it is being taken advantage of," he said. Spanest works to develop tourism in the Ruaha National Park, and in the southern circuit of Tanzania, in the hope it will boost the country's wealth and trickle-down to the villagers. "Communities must benefit from, and actively take control of the resources on their land [other-wise] there is the risk they will make the decision to poach rather than protect the wildlife," he added.

"We are always talking about tourism benefiting the nation. We also need to address demand [and] the systems that allow for poaching to go unpunished."

Demand for ivory is rocketing in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and China. The worth of this black-market ivory in some places is even greater, per ounce, than gold.

Josephat Kisanyage, secretary of one of Ruaha's WMAs, said locals are getting caught up in the global thirst for ivory. "A local person can't afford the rounds to kill the elephant, but poachers are supplying them... the richer ones are using poorer people, who live close to the park, to kill elephants. Raising awareness is the key thing. In this country, even if you're caught in the park with elephant meat, the fine you get will be very low. It is out of date. You can take a poacher to the police and watch them handcuff him. Later that same day, you can be giving him a lift back to the village as a free man."

This is why Space for Giants, the charity determined to protect Africa's elephants, hopes to transfer its work with the judiciary in Kenya to Tanzania. The charity also aims to support the rapid response capacity, developed in Laikipia, into southern Tanzania, in collaboration with local partners and the government.

Dr Max Graham, the charity's founder, said the "critical ingredients" for managing poaching on the ground involves a combination of "legal and effective law enforcement, a well informed and motivated judiciary and, most important of all, buy-in from local communities". He added: "The only way to secure the latter is to give local communities a real stake in wildlife conservation which isn't easy, but is being achieved in northern Kenya through the efforts of our partners, the Northern Rangelands Trust, to great effect."

As for Mrs Nginga, she wants local men not to have to risk their lives to feed their families.

"We need better options," she said. "People have their basic needs. If we had other things, we wouldn't have to go into the parks."

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