Africa fights back against wildlife poachers, but drought is devastating (1)

London, Dec 9 2022 (IPS) – Elephant pop­ulations are starting to recover in parts of Africa as law enforcement agen­cies and local communi­ties turn the tide in their long-running battle against wildlife poachers and traffickers.

But criminal gangs are constantly shifting tactics and exploiting other species, while the greatest threat now is posed by the severe drought devastat­ing swathes of East Africa, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, threatening famine in Somalia, and killing off wildlife and livestock.

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“Poaching of big game is going down in most countries,” says Didi Wamukoya, senior manager of Wildlife Law Enforcement at African Wild­life Foundation (AWF), noting that poaching in Kenya and Tanzania of large iconic species for the interna­tional wildlife trade is now very rare. Elephant population numbers in those two countries are now increasing. It is a particularly dramatic turnaround for Tanzania, which lost some 60 percent of its elephants within a decade.

Wamukoya, who heads AWF’s capacity training of law enforcement agencies to prosecute cases of wildlife trafficking, warns that criminals adapt. While elephants are faring better – also in part because major markets such as China have banned domestic trade in ivory — gangs trafficking to Asia are switching to other species, such as lions for their body parts, pangolins, and abalone.

Pangolins, which have been identi­fied as a potential source of coronavi­ruses, are the most trafficked wild mammals in the world.

Combating cybercrime and enhancing the use of digital evidence in courts have become a key elements of AWF’s work as criminals adapted to Covid-19 lockdowns. “Criminals live in society and are part of us, and they moved online too,” Wamukoya told IPS in an interview, referring to social media platforms like Facebook used to market animals and wildlife products.

Much illegal wildlife trade – estimated by international agencies to be worth over $20 billion a year globally – has moved online, but the actual poaching and transporting of smuggled animals and prod­ucts across borders is the target of AWF’s Canines for Conservation Programme, headed by Will Powell in Arusha, Tanzania.

Powell and his team train sniffer and tracker dogs as well as their handlers selected from ranger forces across Africa, including most recent­ly Ethiopia.

“We are having to raise standards of our operations with dogs at airports as smugglers try to adapt and hide stuff in coffee, condoms, screened by tinfoil. First, rhino horn and ivory were the main target but now pangolin scales are the biggest thing, so dogs are trained on this,” he tells IPS.

Trafficking in lion bones and teeth for Asian ‘medicine’ has also gone up as criminals switch from tigers. “We have to be sure dogs are up to date,” he says.

Powell previously trained dogs to sniff out 32 kinds of explosives in the Balkans and says over 90 percent of dogs can refind a smell after a year without exposure to it. A new smell can be introduced with just hours of training.

“Ivory is a range of smells from freshly killed to antique pieces. Dogs are amazing at how they figure it out, for example, by not responding to cow horn but picking out tortois­es,” he says.

AWF canine teams currently work in Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya,

Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. All staff are local nation­als. Since 2020 teams operating in Manyara Ranch and Serengeti Na­tional Park in Tanzania have made over 100 finds, resulting in multiple arrests.

No elephants in the Serengeti have been lost to the international wildlife trade since the canine teams have been in place.

AWF says that dog units across the six countries have uncovered over 440 caches that led to the arrest of over 500 suspects. Finds have included over 4.6 tonnes of ivory, 22kg of rhino horns, over 220 lion claws, 111 hippo teeth. Seven live pangolins were recovered, and over 4.5 tonnes of pangolin scales.

Dogs and their handlers are also impacting corruption among offi­cials and law enforcement agencies.

“Dogs are an incorruptible tool,” explains Wamukoya. Dealing with corruption is part of training for rangers and handlers. The trans­parency of their work and with handlers trained to send photos of seizures high up to authorities, cor­ruption is made more difficult.

“Corruption is not zero but we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

Tanzania has been known as the world’s elephant killing fields, but a crackdown on poachers and traffickers in recent years has halted a horrendous decline in elephant numbers. On December 2, a Tanza­nian high court sentenced to death 11 people for the murder of Wayne Lotter, a well-known South African conservationist who was shot in a taxi in Dar es Salaam in August 2017. The sentences are likely to be commuted to long jail terms.

Compiling accurate estimates of Africa-wide populations of various species, including big beasts such as elephants, is widely recognised as extremely difficult. So is the gathering of statistics on poaching and seizures of trafficked animals. The 2020 World Wildlife Crime Report by the UNODC attempts to unpick and track the trends since its 2016 edition, noting that lockdown measures taken by governments during the Covid pandemic forced organised criminal groups to “adapt and quickly change their dynamics”, possibly resulting in “illicit markets going even deeper underground, additional risks for corruption and shifts in market and transportation methodologies in the longer term”.

It estimates some 157,000

A dog trained under Africa Wildlife Founda­tion’s Canines for conservation programme looks content with its handlers.

To be continued

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