National Geographic: Two Nations Show Good News, Bad News for Africa’s Elephants


Visits to Gabon and Tanzania show the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that commitment from the top makes all the difference.

By Laurel Neme, National Geographic



Gabon and Tanzania are both high-stakes countries for elephants and other endangered species, but there’s a striking contrast between their abilities to combat wildlife trafficking.

In Gabon, a stronghold for the world’s remaining forest elephants, a top-to-bottom commitment bolsters protection and law enforcement efforts.

But in Tanzania, where government corruption is widespread, elephant populations have experienced devastating losses.

A recent trip to Africa by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe met with government officials, rangers, and representatives from NGOs in both countries.

With vast, intact forests, Gabon holds 40,000 to 45,000 forest elephants, out of the roughly 100,000 in central Africa. As such, the country presents an enticing target for poachers and traffickers, especially as wildlife populations fall elsewhere.


WATCH: The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya battles the dramatic increase of wildlife poaching with specially trained dogs, cutting-edge drones, and heavily armed response teams.

FWS has worked closely with Gabon’s National Parks Agency, providing support for its system of 15 protected areas. Ashe visited two—the Wonga-Wongue Reserve, where the government has reversed rampant elephant poaching and population declines, and Pongara National Park, a coastal reserve.

In Tanzania, FWS has supported wildlife conservation, with an emphasis on elephants and rhinos, since 1990. But on June 1, the Tanzanian government announced that the number of savanna elephants fell from 109,000 in 2009 to around 43,000 at the end of 2014—a 60 percent decline.

From his office at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Ashe said that in the two countries he saw firsthand the scale of the wildlife trafficking crisis and the obstacles facing those fighting it. Above all, he returned home with a new appreciation of the critical role of leadership in protecting nature.

There’s a camaraderie derived from leadership by the president. -- Dan Ashe

What impressed you in Gabon?

In Gabon, we’re seeing a model of how we can do a better job of management and enforcement. In Wonga-Wongue, they’ve turned the whole situation around through good old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground and effective enforcement. The forest elephant population was declining more than 10 percent per year, but now populations are increasing more than 5 percent a year.

Same thing off of the coastal parks. They established large marine reserves, and they’re beginning to gain control over their fisheries resources and combat illegal fishing, which has been done on an industrial scale.

What explains Gabon’s success?

The people are clearly committed. They’re professional and have passion for the job. The commitment I saw in Gabon was at the political levels, from the president on down.

Lee White, who is the head of Gabon National Parks, reports directly to the president. Gabon’s navy provides vessel support to their national parks department. There’s a camaraderie derived from leadership by the president. There’s a very high level of political support and endorsement for the work they’re doing.


The other thing is the relative absence of corruption. It’s pretty clear they have relatively effective control over their natural resources.

One of the first places you see corruption is in the management of natural resources, when people in government take advantage of their position for personal gain. I didn’t see that in Gabon, or hear of it. People didn’t speak of it as a problem. That commitment to ethical stewardship was heartening.


The corruption in Tanzania is disabling. -- Dan Ashe

How does that contrast with what you saw in Tanzania?

The corruption in Tanzania is disabling. There’s significant contrast between the two countries in that regard.

In Tanzania it’s harder to see top-to-bottom commitment. The president has made encouraging statements, but the wildlife sector is still underfunded and lacks support from other government agencies.

While I was there, Tanzania released the results of the latest elephant survey, which were grim. Fewer than 45,000 elephants remain in Tanzania—that’s down from close to 150,000 elephants at the turn of the century.

The day after the minister announced the devastating losses, the headline in the newspaper in Dar es Salaam was that the government was going to launch a search for the missing elephants, as if they’d just gone wandering!

It’s that inability to admit that there’s a serious problem. It’s not that these elephants have gone on a walkabout. These elephants have been slaughtered on an industrial scale for their ivory.

I think that key word is commitment.

Hopefully, that’s changing. Tanzania was very reluctant to release those numbers, and in part I understand why. Ecotourism is a big part of their economy. According to folks we spoke with, it’s responsible for 45 percent of the foreign currency that enters the country. [But] I credit the Minister [for Natural Resources and Tourism] Lazaro [Nyalandu] for releasing that information. I think that’s a big step forward in Tanzania.


Hunting is not what’s been driving the decline. It’s industrial-scale poaching. -- Dan Ashe


Did your trip affect your commitment to the U.S. ban on the import of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Tanzania?


It certainly reinforced my commitment to the ban.

We heard from Tanzania that more than 80 percent of the elephant trophy market comes from the U.S., so our sanction has had a pretty serious impact on hunting concessionaires. But hunting is not what’s been driving the decline in elephants. It’s industrial-scale poaching.

The traditional argument for hunting has been that concessionaires have an incentive to control poaching. I believe that, and I saw that with some of the private operators we visited. They’re managing a hunting block and are effectively controlling poaching, and their wildlife numbers are increasing, but they too are facing enormous pressures from poaching and from encroachment of cattle and agriculture.

But the places where the most devastating losses of elephants have occurred, in the Selous and Ruaha-Rungwa park and preserve, include the big hunting blocks, so clearly the presence of hunting concessions hasn’t stopped elephant poaching there.

The other difficulty is the long-term decline in the age structure in the elephant population. Poachers want to take the big elephants with big ivory, but hunters want to do the same thing.

Let’s find success. Let’s celebrate that success. -- Dan Ashe


In order to allow trophies to come into the U.S., we have to be able to make a determination that hunting is enhancing the survival of elephants in the wild. I believe it can be done in Tanzania.

But we’ve asked the government for a much greater degree of transparency, in terms of how much money is being generated and specifically where that money is going, so that we can make a judgment that the revenue from hunting concessions is going back in to support conservation of the hunted species. That commitment is not as apparent in Tanzania as it was in Gabon.

How can lessons learned from your trip be applied elsewhere?

In Gabon, I saw the difference that leadership from the president on down can make. Other countries, like Botswana and Namibia, are [also] examples of professional stewardship of wildlife and commitment. We need to do a better job of acknowledging leadership and accomplishment by these African nations.

We tend to go where the problems are. Maybe we should spend more time going where success is and profiling success. Let’s find success. Let’s celebrate that success. Let’s raise that success up as an example to other countries in terms of what they can do and help the countries where wildlife is in trouble turn the situation around.

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