Elite police unit at major African wildlife park hailed as number of elephants lost to poachers drops to zero

Last time elephant was killed by poacher in Mozambique’s Niassa reserve was 17 May 2018

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Monday 17 June 2019 14:21 BST
The turnaround is thanks to the introduction of a rapid intervention police force and more assertive patrolling and response by air
The turnaround is thanks to the introduction of a rapid intervention police force and more assertive patrolling and response by air

One of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves is marking a year without a single elephant being lost to poachers.

In recent years, thousands of animals had been killed in Mozambique’s Niassa park, reducing the number of elephants from 12,000 to little over 3,600 in 2016.

Rigorous anti-poaching strategies were introduced in the park – which is larger than Switzerland – and since 17 May 2018, no elephants have been killed.

The dramatic turnaround is thanks to the introduction of a rapid-intervention police force and more assertive patrolling and response by air, according to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the reserve with Mozambique’s government and several other partners.

“It is a remarkable achievement,” James Bampton, country director with the Wildlife Conservation Society, told Associated Press.

The new interventions have led partners to hope that Niassa’s elephants “stand a genuine chance for recovery”, the conservation group said.

However, despite the sign of progress, it could take many years for the elephant population in Niassa to rebuild to its former levels even if poaching is kept under control.

Mr Bampton said he discovered the year free of poaching deaths while going through data. He said political will is a key reason for the success, with Mozambique’s president keen to see poaching reduced.

Mr Bampton acknowledged that the low number of remaining elephants is also a factor in the decline in poaching. A year ago, he estimated that fewer than 2,000 elephants remained in Niassa, though he now says preliminary analysis of data from a survey conducted in October and not yet published indicated that about 4,000 elephants are in the reserve.

Still, a year that appears to be free of elephant poaching in the sprawling reserve drew exclamations from some wildlife experts.

“It is a major and very important development that poaching has ceased. This represents a major success,” George Wittemyer, who chairs the scientific board for the Kenya-based organisation Save the Elephants, told the AP.

The new rapid-intervention police force is an elite unit that is better armed than the reserve’s normal rangers and has “a bit of a reputation of being quite hard”, Mr Bampton said, adding that no “bad incidents” have been reported in Niassa.

Baby Elephants rescued from mud by rangers in Thailand

Members of the force are empowered to arrest suspected poachers, put together a case within 72 hours and submit it to the local prosecutor, Mr Bampton said. “Just being caught with a firearm is considered intent to illegal hunting,” he added, with a maximum prison sentence of 16 years.

Wildlife experts have seen gains elsewhere in Africa against elephant poaching. Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, widely acknowledged as “ground zero” for poaching and linked to the Niassa reserve by a wildlife corridor, also has seen a recent decline in the killings.

African elephant poaching has declined to pre-2008 levels after reaching a peak in 2011, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

But experts say the rate of annual elephant losses still exceeds the birth rate, and the encroachment of human settlements is reducing the animals’ range. Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from an estimated several million around 1900 to little more than 400,000, according to surveys in recent years.

Collaboration and “huge effort” among the Niassa reserve’s partners has been crucial but data show that issues remain with other iconic species such as lions, said Rob Harris, country manager for Fauna and Flora International, which supports one of the operators in the reserve. “So the combination of national-level support and on-the-ground effort must be maintained to improve the situation for all wildlife.”

Additional reporting by AP

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