Elephant hunting ban collapses on Kenya-Tanzania border

In the lush, rolling savannah that connects northern Tanzania with Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, elephants roam the shadowed slopes of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in search of food.

The animals are used to the open-sided 4x4s packed with tourists on the Kenyan side and don’t seem to see any danger from the cell phone-wielding tourists. But what they probably don’t know is that just across the border in Tanzania, which has been as safe as the park has been for 30 years, people are now pointing guns instead of cameras.

Since September, five male elephants living around Amboseli have been shot dead, likely by trophy hunters, on the Tanzanian side of the wildlife corridor. At least two were so-called super tuskers, with tusks long enough to stroke the ground.

The area has not seen a similar rapid slaughter since the mid-1990s, and conservationists say it signals a breakdown in the unspoken agreement between the two countries that banned hunting in the border area.

It also highlights the challenges neighbouring countries face in reconciling their different approaches to managing their shared wildlife heritage. Kenya bans hunting and derives all its wildlife revenue from tourism. Wildlife safaris are an important part of Tanzania’s economy, but the country also allows wealthy tourists to shoot big game.

“It’s heartbreaking for me,” said Cynthia Moss, an American zoologist who oversees the Amboseli herd’s roughly 2,000 elephants as director of the Amboseli Elephant Conservancy. There are only about 10 of Amboseli’s giant-tusked elephants left, she said, and another 15 or so across Kenya. “I know these elephants. I know how trusting they are.”

The killing caused an uproar in Kenya, where a number of prominent conservationists Wrote an open letter It called on the Tanzanian government to instruct authorities to ban hunting within 25 miles of the Kenyan border.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism said the country’s conservation strategy is based on a “strong foundation of regulation, research and scientific evidence,” and noted that Tanzania has one of the largest elephant populations in Africa. The government has previously justified the hunts on the grounds that they bring in millions of dollars in much-needed revenue.

The Kenya Wildlife Service did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Kadu Sebunya, executive director of the Kenya-based conservation group African Wildlife Fund, said it was unlikely the elephant was shot by poachers. He said there was no indication Tanzanian authorities were investigating. “If poachers illegally killed elephants in the same place, they would be punished by law,” he said.

The killing of an elephant on the Tanzanian side 30 years ago sparked similar outrage and led to the announcement of a hunting ban.

In December 1994, three Amboseli elephants were killed in quick succession near the town of Longido, about nine miles from the border, sparking an outcry from Kenya. In May 1995, following pressure from conservationists and scientists in Kenya and around the world, Tanzanian authorities announced a nine-month ban on hunting in the area.

Tanzanian officials said the moratorium would be lifted if the two countries agreed to set up clearly defined protected areas in talks.

This is where things get confusing. Old newspaper articles confirm that the ban was announced, but it’s unclear if any discussions took place or if the restriction was ever lifted after nine months. There’s no evidence that any further action was taken. But for some reason, hunters continued to avoid the area until recently.

Moss and other conservationists in Kenya say there was an unspoken agreement between the two countries after the initial announcement, but that appears to have collapsed. Experts say they don’t know why. Tanzania’s conservation laws have not changed.

Hunters, meanwhile, argue that the lack of clarity means the agreement never existed in the first place.

Tanzania currently has about 60,000 elephants, down from about 316,000 in 1978. Kenya has about About 35,000 people remain, down from about 160,000. Around the same time.

As a keystone species, elephants not only shape the ecosystems of other wildlife by creating water holes with their tusks and dispersing seeds with their dung, but their intelligence and sophisticated social structure also make them susceptible to violent deaths. This traumatizes the surviving elephants, leading to aggressive behaviour..

The targeted older, larger bulls are thought to be essential not just for reproduction, but also for cultural transmission and maintaining social order. Male elephants mostly live outside the herd, and younger males spend time with their elders, sometimes imparting knowledge such as where to find food or go when the seasons change.

They model behavior. In one study, Young bulls may become more aggressive in the absence of older males..

Sebunya said the super tuskers also help young bucks understand which types of people to avoid. “They teach them, ‘Tourist vehicles are OK, but other types of vehicles are a problem,'” he said.

The first elephant lost in the latest wave, 35-year-old Gilgil, who was killed in September, was one of those with large tusks.

Moss said targeting only elephants like Gilgil “takes away the natural element of competition and survival and allows younger, less experienced and possibly less energetic males to reproduce.”

Sports organisations, however, argue that if properly managed, hunting can be beneficial in a poor country like Tanzania (where the GDP per capita is about $1,200). According to the World BankIn Kenya, it is about $2,100.

Zidan Jambeck and Quintin Whitehead, who run Kilombero North Safaris, which offers big game hunting tours for elephants, lions, leopards and other animals, say their company shares some of its revenue with communities that own parts of the hunting areas. (Kilombero said it paid a total of $250,000 for the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area in 2023. Enduimet officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

In addition, in Tanzania, Rapidly growing rural population Droughts are also becoming more frequent and intense in East Africa, but hunters say farmers are less likely to kill elephants that invade their fields if they know they will receive a cut of the income from hunting.

Setting aside well-managed nature reserves for hunting also means less land is destroyed for agriculture, they add.

Tanzania sets annual quotas for animals to be hunted – 50 elephants this year – and each hunting party must be monitored by officials.

Kilombero admitted to hunting elephants in the area where Gilgil’s carcass was found and his tusks removed, but denied claims that he had killed a super-sized elephant.

“We are conservationists, so I can assure you we are not targeting big elephants,” Jambeck, who led the September hunt, said in a video interview. “We are doing everything in accordance with Tanzanian regulations. We have the support of the government. We have all the approvals from the local community.”

In Longido, locals seem divided.

On a recent weekday, a group of men met over late-night drinks to discuss their views on trophy hunting. One older man concluded that as long as it’s legal, it’s fine. A quieter younger man countered that killing for sport is wrong.

But do the men benefit from the income from hunting? “No,” they answer, shaking their heads in unison. They say authorities favour wildlife and sport hunters but abandon vulnerable farmers.

“We need loans to expand our land, but the elephants destroy it and we get nothing,” farmer Edward Masaki, 53, said in Swahili, frowning.

“Right now, I have men with flashlights guarding my farm day and night,” he said. “The problem is, when the animals attack, we can’t kill them.”

He was referring to Tanzania’s nationwide ban on killing wildlife to combat poaching, which carries stiff prison sentences of between three and 30 years for killing an animal without a permit.

Meanwhile across the border in Amboseli, conservationists say they are rushing to get answers from the Tanzanian government but are waiting anxiously, fearing news that another large elephant has been killed.

“All our appeals have been ignored,” Moss said. If the slaughter continues at the same pace, she said, Amboseli’s elephants could be extinct within two years and the ecosystem would suffer unprecedented damage.

“Hunted animal populations become unnatural because humans are choosing whose genes to pass on and who not, who should live and who should die,” she said.

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