This is not a ragbag operation, but a global network, akin to cocaine, heroin or people trafficking.
Poaching is no longer about one man and a bow and arrow: it is a huge business, akin to international networks, sprawling across continents. From baby cheetahs, 'medicinal' rhino horn to carved elephant tusks, poaching is identified as a major threat to global stability, the environment.
"Most days I'm bouncing around on bad roads for hours, I've lost count of the punctures." Helen O'Neill lifts out her two rocks that are wedging the back wheels stationary, plops them in the car, takes out the jack, and fixes on the newly punctured tyre to the tailgate of the jeep.
Helen's morning commute must rank as one of the most splendid in the world. At 6.20am, after a quick boiled kettle wash in a bowl, a coffee, she drives off into the 2200 sq km area of the North Serengeti that she surveys, as part of the Cheetah Project.
We're out looking for cheetahs with the Serengeti Cheetah Project. The main remit is to compile basic information about their habits and movements, across a long period of time. We've been driving for four hours, past numerous delighted tourists ogling bucking wilderbeest, startled zebra, colobus monkey, hartebeest, dik diks, oryx, rindebuck, lions and even a leopard.
The cheetah project works in collaboration with Serengeti National Parks, and Tanzanian Wildlife Research institute, the most famous, and oldest cheetah project in the world. Helen isn't comfortable commenting on poaching.
The conservation world in East Africa is highly political, and people must tread carefully: their visas and ability to keep working in a focussed area rest on not being too critical of East African governments. The tourist industry needs live elephants, not slaughtered carcasses that are funding arms to bomb shopping malls.
Poaching is literally the elephant in the room. It's everywhere and massively on the rise. Al Jazeera says sixty elephants a day are killed in Tanzania. Recently the East African Wildlife Society commented:
"The data collected over the last 24 months shows a massive escalation in the rate of illegal killing of elephants. The situation is now so bad that by most measures it can be considered out of control and certainly beyond the limits of what elephant populations can sustain."
Most elephants and rhinos are killed in rural Tanzania and Kenya where not coincidentally, there is huge rural poverty, few employment options, multiple routes out of the country, less surveillance, and the courts are lax if people are caught.
The poaching debate is drenched in horror and dreadful images of slaughtered elephants (rightly so), and rarely grounded in economic or political realities. Simply: if wage disparities continue, opportunities for formal structured employment remain so scant, and the judiciary is so weak, poaching is still a viable job option for millions of people. And poaching will continue to fund terrorism.
The long running debate has taken a fresh twist: in April 2013 the International Conservation Caucus Foundation delivered the results of an 18 month investigation. They claimed that Al Shabaab, since losing the revenue from Kismayo in Kenya, had stepped up its poaching.
"Since 2011 ... the rapid escalation of the threat to elephants is due to heightened levels of participation from the heavily armed poaching gangs, often hailing from Somalia, operating either for organized crime syndicates or for fundamentalist organizations.
"Ivory has the potential to provide an easily accessible and untraceable source of revenue to terrorist and extremist organizations in both Kenya and Somalia, providing a direct threat to the US and its African allies.
"Wildlife managers with security experience who are operating on the ground have seen an evolution of activity that, combined with specific indicators, represents a credible and increasing threat that Al Shabaab in East Africa is gaining financial support through trading in illegal ivory."
The report went on to point out that Wildlife Ranger services in Kenya Chad and Tanzania were in no position to counter terrorists, and that more coherent, intersectional solutions were needed.
Although efforts such as Clinton's Global Initiative (which funded the chipping of Black Rhino in Kenya via the WWF) are well intentioned, the danger is that the debate will polarise around either one of two poles: 'increase the militarisation of the affected areas', or 'train park wardens and sniffer dogs'.
When Hilary Clinton described wildlife poaching as an "economic and security challenge to Africa" in September 2013, reactions in Tanzania were mixed. In reality the poaching issue is underpinned by the same factors that affect communities wracked by drugs: poor governance, poor citizenship involvement, disengagement from central government, failing educational institutions, poverty and significant blocks to accessing ways out of social and economic swamps.
And corruption: there is no doubt that for the amounts of ivory and other poached animals to be leaving Kenya and Tanzania, the collusion of many, very senior people are needed. The complexity and extent of the poaching taking place makes it a no-brainer. People on the 'inside' are making it happen, and benefiting.
At risk of extinction
Though rarely poached, Cheetahs are on the 'at risk of extinction' list of the IUCN. Some of the subspecies are in critical danger. People, climate change, agricultural cultivation, ignorance, roads, lions - all contribute to their fragility.
In June 2011 three live cheetahs were 'discovered' in a local garden in Arusha, Tanzania, in a cramped cage, after a tip off from local Tanzanian neighbours. As Mordecai Ogada, Head of the East African Regional Office Cheetah Project says
"This is the first case of illegal cheetah trafficking in Tanzania, it is happening in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Eritrea, and North Eastern Kenya, and it is disturbing to see demand growing.
"The key issue is more than the local poaching or capture of cheetahs in Tanzania is the trade that fuels the demand. The culprit caught with these cheetahs was not a poacher, as far as I can tell, but a courier because the animals were in small cages suitable for transport."
For many senior Tanzanian officials, and local conservationists, the situation is exasperating. More than others, they understand why poaching happens, the various medicinal, culinary and ornamental uses of poached animals, and have good ideas how to prevent poaching.
According to Simon Mduma of the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute, Zebra and buck pelts are still being poached, mostly for rugs or ornaments. Cheetahs as hunting trophies are thankfully mostly considered in bad taste. Yet the cheetah's young are still prize catches, and now there is a new threat: people who, overwhelmed with their undeniable beauty and grace, want them as live pets.
Concrete facts are hard to establish: anecdotally the demand is coming from the Middle East (UAE, Dubai and Oman). Recently a popular columnist wrote in the UAE national paper:
"a friend tells me that cheetahs have become a special birthday gift for some kids! And you know, baby cheetahs are very cute. And people can afford it so they pay and own it for that moment of a BlackBerry display picture. But they have no idea what it takes to care for such a wild animal."
The rise in poaching, including bushmeat
Poaching across Africa is on the rise, according to donors, park wardens and government sources. Gerard Bigarube, East Africa Director for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, based in the Serengeti, thinks there's an undeniable link between Africa's increased trade with Asia, and the demand for 'exotic' goods, purported to have medicinal qualities, rhino horn and elephant tusks, primarily.
Bushmeat - monkeys, small dik-diks and gazelles - (captured using snares and bow and arrows) can now be found in East Africa's 'classier' restaurants, served up as nouvelle cuisine. Alarmingly, there's now a marked increase in sophiscated fire arms, rocket launchers, motorbikes and even helicopters in Africa's parks. As Simon Mduma remarks,
"We receive constant reassurances at CITES that the countries receiving poached animals will try and curb the demand, the reality is until economic disparities are diminished, we won't tackle poaching. If the guys on the bottom- who capture the animals, are getting $100,000 for a rhino head, and the guys at the top selling it for $500,000; the risks are worth it for them."
The rise in poaching indicates there are clearly infrastructures and systems in place: this is not a ragbag operation, but a global network, akin to cocaine, heroin or people trafficking. As Gerhard von Rooyen, of the UNODC's Nairobi office comments:
"The criminal justice systems throughout the region are not at the level they could be. They are dealing with transnational organisations, so there needs to be greater cross-border cooperation between relevant agencies. If not, it makes it extremely difficult to stop them."
Animal poaching is linked to oil exploration in the horn and East of Africa (there's far more private planes, unmonitored traffic, and many private air strips). Since the 90's poaching is intertwined with the conflicts in Zimbabwe, DRC and Congo, where tusks and horns are traded for arms.
Undoubtedly the unchecked and chaotic nature of parts of DRC lend themselves to militia armies funding their exploits via poaching. The Chinese medicine market, which buys black rhino and elephant tusks has tentacles through Malaysia, Cambodia is both hard to monitor, and easy to stereotype.
However the Environmental Investigation Agency squarely puts the blame on China for the rise in poaching, because since 2008 are allowed by CITES to buy the tusk stockpiles in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and soon possibly Tanzania.
The huge Chinese investment in East African projects, roads, airports, fuel lines, railways and buildings, undoubtedly means there's a great deal more connection between China and Africa than previously. However as long as animals are poached, whether it's a rhino, elephant or a cheetah, it's a problem.
Ricky, a hunter in the Serengeti takes high paying clients into the bush, to undertake controlled (and valuable revenue-earning for the Tanzanians) hunting, says poaching is still a problem:
"It's not the odd villager who's hunting a monkey for bushmeat to feed his kids that's the problem. Or even to sell it on. It's the guys at the top: poaching is essentially like the drugs business, it's huge, well co-ordinated and involves big weapons."
Peter, a retired hunter with over 50 years of experience, agrees:
"How else can you move animals through international airports, arms, helicopters, and huge amounts of money without massive organisation and corruption?"
Their views are endorsed by The Elephant Action League, an international conservation group. Andrea Costra, EAL executive director said recently: "We established a link between the ivory traders and Al Shabab ... Shabab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations."
In the light of the recent attacks in Westgate Mall in Kenya, the need to stop elephant poaching has become openly, brazenly political, and encompasses many more interest groups. According to the EAL, there is evidence of ties between the poaching trade and militant groups like Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or Darfur's Janjaweed, cited in a United Nations (UN) report published in May.
The problem is now so great that the Clinton Global Initiative have invested a $80 million in a regional multi-stakeholder project to eliminate poaching. They will train sniffer dogs and retrain wardens. As yet the much needed reforms for the legal system are not being progressed.
But public opinion is changing: last month saw a march in Arusha, Tanzania, of thousands protesting against elephant poaching - a huge step out of the secrecy and fear that's been surrounding the issue for years. Tourist operators, previously wishing to be low profile, were vociferous in their support to end elephant murders.
The Director General of Tanzanian National Parks (TANAPA), Alan Kijazi, regards poaching as a priority issue, and he's working round the clock. Since the arrest of six people (including four airport officials) and the sacking of 30 TANAPA staff since November 2011, for trying to smuggle 136 animals of 14 different protected species out of Kilimanjaro International airport to Doha, Qatar, the problem has been centre stage.
The loot included four giraffes, 68 Thomson's gazelles, 20 Grant's gazelles, two impalas, 3 elands, 10 dik-diks, two lappet-faced vultures, seven kori bustard, four ground hornbill and two serval cats, according to State Attorney Verutas Mlay.
For Alan Kijazi, and for Simon Mduma, the issue is one of incentives. Mduma believes poaching has to become too dangerous, and the penalties too huge, for it to truly cease. He says:
"We have to increase the risk of being arrested for poaching, to improve our courts, and the times it takes to prosecute. We had over 2000 cases of poaching in the Serengeti alone last year, most of those guys are walking free now."
This is despite the fact that unknown numbers of local wildlife rangers are now getting shot and killed in poacher battles. Gerard Bigarube believes the emphasis must be on intelligence gathering to catch the ring leaders of poaching, who are "high up the social hierarchy, careful, and very protected." He adds:
"The numbers of personnel working in the parks, and the quality of work, are both too low. We need significant investment in these areas, if we renumerate our staff properly, poaching won't be seen as an option. Plus we must support our rangers, in tackling increasingly difficult situations on the ground".
Back in the jeep, Helen and I have pulled over to the top of the 'fifth hill' on the Serengeti plains somewhere near Masaii Kopjes. We have an unimpeded morning view of Africa waking, slowly.
From the jeep, we see a group of wildebeest and zebra skittishly darting across the grass plains some 3 kilometres away. There is a slow troupe of elephants, led by an elderly matriarch in the foreground. "There's probably a lion nearby, which is why they're panicking. There! There! Do you see that?"
About a kilometre away is a smudge of brown, a lump. "It's a termite hill, and there's a cheetah on top of it!" We zig zag our way towards the lump. "What I want now is for the cheetahs to stand up, so I can get a good look at them, and photo them. Then identify them, and measure belly size".
As if on cue this is exactly what happens. Helen snaps away, then pulls out a small book, her GPS and a set of index cards. The researchers over the years obviously have a sense of humour: there's Carrie and Mr Big, (from the 'Sex in The City' family). On another day we might see members of the sports car family (Bentley, Rolls, Royce, Morgan, Aston and Martin), the Pasta family, the coffee brothers, the tea brothers, or the liqueur family.
But what matters is that they are wild and free. And that's how they should stay.
Verity Largo is a freelance journalist and investigator based in Tanzania.
Some names have been changed for the protection of individuals.
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