By Cristián Samper & Alastair Nelson
The Niassa National Reserve is as remote as it gets in Mozambique. The size of Tennessee or three times the size of the Serengeti, Niassa is the home of one of the last stands for the African savannah elephant. Estimates indicate there are 13,000 elephants left, down from 20,000 at their recent highest.The terrain in which poachers are killing off Niassa’s elephants is rugged and easy to hide in. Photo by Mary Dixon © WCS
Complex issues, including weak governance and the illegal markets for ivory far away in Asia and the U.S., drive the crisis facing elephants in Niassa. Just in 2014 so far, 500 elephants have been killed by well-organized criminal groups across the reserve. Another one or two elephants will be killed today.
Two days ago, our team was called to an area of the reserve about 40 minutes from the headquarters by helicopter. Due to earlier suspicious activity in the area near that site, we had already positioned scouts at an observation post on top of an inselberg – one of the island-like mountains that rise up across the landscape – about 800 meters high. The scouts saw a fire, possibly a campfire for poachers, and alerted our reaction team, which has access to a helicopter temporarily assisting our operation this month.
There, an elephant carcass was spotted next to a dry stream in a grassy patch of an open woodland. The elephant had been killed just hours earlier. The odd part of this finding was that the tusks were not removed. We suspect the poachers fled without the tusks as our helicopter had been in the area dropping off our scouts. The helicopter likely spooked them. If only we had access to a helicopter permanently. Resources have not allowed this up to now.
When we arrived at the carcass, our team assessed that the elephant had been killed by an AK-47. Another very typical moment in Niassa. And that’s why all the teams working here with the Mozambique government live day-to-day on high alert as if they are in a war zone.
The team gets intelligence from informers about poachers operating in the area. They dispatch scouts to inselberg tops and to the woodlands to look for campfires or other poacher activity. Our technical director and law enforcement specialist wait each day for scout reports that they log into a database, helping them strategize how to stay ahead of the poachers.
This intelligence worked this week as six poachers were apprehended in a nighttime raid. In the Luwire concession, operators rejoiced with toasts. That was a big win for the elephants and Mozambique. An armed group responsible for killing 39 elephants since January was taken out of commission.
So this is what a part of conservation looks like on the ground in Niassa. This is real law enforcement.
The Mozambique government and WCS operation, along with scouts from concession operators in the reserve, are integrating resources and staff to protect Niassa’s elephants.
We had visited the capital city of Maputo earlier in the week before heading to Niassa. There, we met with several leaders passionate about working together to help protect Niassa’s wildlife. Mozambique officials, the U.S. government (with leadership from Ambassador Griffiths and USAID), the U.K., former officials from the Mozambique government, and others all want to help.
The newly-appointed Mozambique head of parks, Dr. Soto, at a gathering at the home of the U.K. High Commissioner, sent all a great sign in his remarks when he welcomed these partnerships from other governments and he discussed the urgency of the crisis. From a world away – 4,000 kilometers to the south of Niassa – Soto, too, feels the catastrophe taking shape in Niassa and recognizes the importance of protecting Mozambique’s heritage.
No one, and no government or organization, feels they can stop the poaching alone. Complete integration and cooperation of conservation efforts with the government of Mozambique will be needed to save the elephant in Niassa. It is this kind of partnership that will help us advance important efforts to protect Niassa’s elephants, promote security and governance, and secure national assets for the people of Mozambique.
Cristián Samper is the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Alastair Nelson is the Country Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mozambique program.