The Gladiators of the Niassa National Reserve

By: Estacio Valoi   It is around half past eight on the evening of 5 August 2020, in Mecula district, in the northern Mozambican provin

By: Estacio Valoi

 

It is around half past eight on the evening of 5 August 2020, in Mecula district, in the northern Mozambican province of Niassa. Suddenly voices cry out for help, there are sounds of drums, as well as the deafening echoes of shots fired.

At one point I think we might be facing yet another attack allegedly by the group “Al-Shabab”. They had attempted a failed attack earlier in the year. I am completely mistaken; it is something much more complicated that has been going on for a long time. It is the local community and inspectors with drums and weapons chasing away elephants and buffaloes.

Baldeu Chande, the administrator of the Niassa National Reserve (NNR), says that after years of degradation, the Reserve was refurbished between 2000 and 2006. The strategy was to deliver ecological meaning, as well as to contribute to the socio-economic development of the communities, by focusing both on environmental development and human development.

But this was almost derailed by poachers. An average of five elephants were slaughtered a day in the Niassa National Reserve. As a result, the elephant population dropped dramatically from 20,374 to less than 13,000 between 2009 and 2013. The killing of elephants for ivory by organized crime syndicates was being carried out on an “industrialized” scale – between 1,500 and 1,800 elephants were hunted each year, mainly in northern Mozambique, involving Tanzanians, Somalis and Chinese with help from people linked to the country’s political nomenclature.

So the strategy was overhauled with improved policing involving a joint task-force comprising Park and concessions’ rangers,  Unity Intervention Force and regular polices, and communities, as well as transforming game   hunting areas (coutadas) into conservation and non-hunting areas. The Park also hired more workers.

The number of elephants has increased steadily, but this has come at the cost of human-animal conflict. Local communities are very angry and urgent measures are needed to protect people. Chande believes that if no concrete measures are taken, the scenario could become catastrophic, and result in an imminent conflict. “It is necessary to bring measures to protect communities”.

Plans are afloat to lay a fence that will separate space before human-animal cohabitation becomes impossible.

Zero Elephant slaughtered

Meanwhile, the plans to use a joint task-force and anti-poaching measures have borne fruits. As such, the killing of elephants has decreased. José Filmão Sitoe, the Reserve’s inspection chief, says that from the 23 elephants slaughtered in 2018, there have been “zero elephants” killed in the last 19 months. The five elephants that died last year was due to illness and injuries suffered in altercations with other animals.

The Reserve has a helicopter that is deployed during the rainy season. Sitoe says that hunters know how the inspectors move and that they even challenge the inspectors. Unfortunately the rangers’ worker is difficult and dangerous: “there is bloodshed, there are deaths, violence by the action of poachers who are armed to the teeth and the rangers are also victims of wild animals”.

Rangers still with   salary problems

According to Baldeu, one of the issues that most affects the rangers is the poor salaries and negotiations between the Special Reserve of Niassa and Biofund are underway in order to resolve this issue. “We are negotiating a financing package with Biofund, with support made through the National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC).

Despite the infrastructures within the Reserve, financed by WCS – USAID, UNDP and others such as the Japanese government, the reserve that still manages to provide “the feed, buy the uniforms and also buy fuels”, the issue of salaries remains a great challenge. It is the salary that we pay to the rangers, paid through the revenues that we make here”.

Assistance to communities

According to Samuel Bilerio, a veterinarian at the Park, who in addition to his main job, assists communities in the veterinary field, as well as mitigating the human-animal conflict, assistance is needed to prevent injury or death by animals, both in communities and up to the provincial hospital in Lichinga. “We have been providing assistance on the spot, from injury to death. We avail cars to take the person to the local hospital or to the Lichinga provincial hospital. And in the case of deaths, we carry out procedures from the case until the end, we do not leave the family helpless and let people know that it is not the fault of the Park. We are trying to design a coexistence plan between communities and animals”.

The laying a conventional electric fence within a radius of 110 to 135 kilometres that will separate the community from the reserve is a major concern. The new fence was delayed due to COVID-19 and both the consultant and the company have delayed works. This is despite the fact that the entire material has already been paid for, emphasized Bilerio.

Fence and more Fences

The delay in laying of the fence is worrying the communities. The District Delegate for Association of Military Disabled Servicemen, Jeremias Martinho Angale, laments that the building of the fence is taking long, which is causing concerns among community members. “Months have passed and the year is ending, we have no clear information. They say that the money for the building has already entered the coffers of Bank of Mozambique and that they will hand it over to the ANC, then to the Reserve. But even if you ask the local government, it says nothing. We have two governments here – a government of the people where the district administrator says one thing, a Park government which says another, and here the people and the community itself are left without information.”

The communities had been promised a 20% economic benefit for staff training and rehabilitation of conservation areas, through the building and maintenance of management infrastructures and reintroduction of emblematic species for tourist attraction and ecosystem recovery. However, “nothing was paid”.

 

But not everything is a bed of roses

Sitoe says that almost 500 traps for small animals were found in the first half of this year alone, and this nefarious activity seems to be growing. “In August we had about 400 more traps”, he says.

Lion poaching and other small species continues

“It is difficult to say if it is high or not, because these are animals that normally their trophies are not very durable, but they are few. I usually call African science of medicine that ends up using these products. Says Chande.

The Lion poaching is still under investigation because it is a biological were the poacher use chemicals, so it is difficult to find out, it is very complicated and we need to continue investigating. Emphasized the chief inspector.

There have been some arrests which ended up in court. The Reserve says that the arrests led to the courts trying 12 cases, resulting in the sentencing of four people to a 12-year sentence, and one poacher sentenced to two years in prison converted into social work – something that did not please the Reserve. “We didn’t agree. We had to appeal because the judge understood that he could give amnesty within the scope of COVID-19, but there is also a penalty limit. I don’t know if it was a failure or what, they benefited from that amnesty, and that was in the Niassa Provincial Court.”

One poacher managed to escape. He is identified as one Tanzanian national named Jemusse Daniel, captured with an AK-47 rifle with ammunition.

“No ranger was present at his trial and he did not serve his sentence, he fled, and so far we are still looking for that individual”.

“. We recovered weapons that were used in poaching within the Reserve in the years 2016 and 2017. These weapons were seized in Majune at the administrative post in Maqueia and another at the headquarters of the district of Marupá. Also three more AK-47 automatic and semi-automatic weapons used in poaching at Majune Safari, Liwire, and Kambako were discovered.” said one ranger.

 

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