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The elephant killing fields of Selous

Some 481 miles to the southeast of Tanzania’s iconic Serengeti National Park lies the less-known Selous Game Reserve. At 21 100 square miles, however, the Selous is twice the size of Switzerland and one of the largest protected areas in the world. Because of the diversity of its wildlife, and its undisturbed landscape, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

© Daniel Rosengren

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

But for many species in the Selous, all is far from well. Results from a wildlife census conducted in October and November, 2013, show a dramatic decline in elephants in particular.

Wildlife surveys in the Selous have taken place since 1976, according to Rob Muir, director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS)’s Africa Office. “They’re a critical monitoring tool for conservation efforts, and provide important insights into an ecosystem’s health.” In 1976, some 109 419 elephants inhabited the area. The reserve has suffered such heavy elephant poaching for ivory, however, that only an estimated 13 084 elephants remain. In the last four years alone, the Selous has lost 67 per cent of its elephants. It’s one of Tanzania’s, if not Africa’s, most brutal killing fields.

“Increased demand for ivory, particularly in the Far East countries and, therefore, price increase is a catalyst and a key determinant for the recent widespread elephant poaching,” states Lazaro Nyalandu, Tanzania Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, in a news release reporting the 2013 census results.

Stemming the blood tide is crucial for conservation efforts, scientists believe. But the elephant poaching epidemic continues to escalate across Tanzania, says Muir, “threatening the future of these magnificent animals.”

The Selous is one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa, and as such is an important tourist destination. For both conservation and economic reasons, protecting the natural resources of the Selous is a priority, says Muir. “The future of its elephants hangs in the balance.” At the FZS, he says, “we’re calling on the international community to unite in a concerted effort to support the Tanzanian government as it strives to secure the Selous.”

Scientists such as Eivin Røskaft were surprised that the 2013 Selous elephant population had declined so precipitously. “A few years ago, in 2010 or so, it was somewhere between 50 000 and 80 000 elephants,” says Røskaft. With the removal of elephants from the Selous, the entire ecosystem may be altered. “The elephant is a keystone species, so even if poaching stops now, there are likely to be a lot of habitat changes,” Røskaft says. Without elephants munching on vegetation, “the woods will grow more dense,” he believes, “which in turn will affect other species.”

One has only to look north to see the wisdom in his words. In the Serengeti, elephant poaching was rampant in the 1980s. As elephant numbers fell, trees sprouted like weeds. Across the Tanzanian border in Kenya, where an anti-poaching effort was underway, trees were – and still are – fewer. Elephants nibbled on saplings’ tender shoots and on trees’ post-fire regrowth, and continue to today.

© Daniel Rosengren

© Daniel Rosengren

Røskaft believes there’s “an urgent need to follow up what’s going on in the Selous with science. The tragic decline in this elephant population is not only a Tanzanian issue, it’s the responsibility of the world community.”

The 2013 wildlife survey is perhaps the most recent step in assessing the extent of the nose-dive in Selous elephants. The Tanzania Wildlife and Research Institute (TAWIRI) and the FZS coordinated the census. Participating organisations also included the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA); Save the Elephants; the African Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); and the Kenya Department of Remote Sensing. Three aircraft were flown above the Selous at an average height of 350 feet, with transects spaced five and ten kilometers apart. Animals were counted in a strip 150 meters wide on both sides of the planes.

© Daniel Rosengren

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

Some 203 transects were covered, along which 712 elephants were counted. That gave a total estimate of 13 084 elephants in the Selous as a whole. The elephants’ density wasn’t even across the reserve, however. The highest numbers were in small pockets in the northwest, central and southern areas, according to the TAWIRI report Aerial Census of Large Animals in the Selous-Mikumi Ecosystem. Almost 80 percent of the elephants were inside the Selous Game Reserve, but 12 percent risked living outside the protected area. Only eight percent of the elephants were located in Niassa Corridor to the south of the Selous, and four percent in Mikumi National Park to the north. None were counted to the west in the Kilombero Game Controlled Area.

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

Dead elephants were also censused, with a total estimate of 6 516 in the Selous. The highest numbers were found in the Kingupira sector in the northern part of Mikumi National Park, and in the central section of the Selous.

In a streak of light on an otherwise dark canvas, the Tanzanian government is starting the second phase of the country’s elephant census. This next step will encompass the “northern circuit” parks: Serengeti, Tarangire, and Lake Manyara. The counts will ultimately become part of the all-Africa Great Elephant Census, managed by the organisation Elephants Without Borders with funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

© Daniel Rosengren/FZS

The 2013 Selous census was a landmark event, believes biologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton of Save the Elephants. “The results confirm that the elephant population has been decimated,” he says, “but also give hope for Tanzania to plan for its recovery with united international support.”

For more information on Tanzania’s elephants, please click here.



Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a science journalist and ecologist, and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings her passion for wildlife and conservation to many publications, including Africa Geographic, Scientific American, BBC Wildlife and The Washington Post. She has been a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology, and serves on the committees of several international scientific societies.

Africa Geographic