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In A Tanzanian Village, Elephant Poachers Thrive

An insatiable demand for ivory in Asia is fueling a massive slaughter of elephants across Africa. As NPR's John Burnett reports, one of the worst poaching hot spots is Tanzania. In this story, he visits an ivory poacher's town that sits next to a major game reserve.

It's midday in Mloka, a cheerless village that is the gateway to one of Africa's greatest nature sanctuaries, the Selous Game Reserve, which is larger than Switzerland and has vast numbers of giraffes, zebras and hippos in addition to elephants. The sun is stultifying, and the streets are lifeless, but business is booming for the poachers in Mloka.

Two poachers agreed to talk about their illegal work in the courtyard of a low-cost guesthouse in Mloka, where laundry hangs on a line and prostitutes slip in and out of rooms.

A 46-year-old elephant killer who gives his name as Mkanga slouches in a plastic chair.

"Ivory buyers come to Mloka and look for us. They say they want 200 kilograms [440 pounds] of ivory, can you arrange for that? The businessmen are mainly Chinese," he says.

"After getting a down payment, I look for some boys to hire as porters. We bring flour, sugar, beans and water with us," he adds. "We cross into the game reserve at night, but after that we can move in the daytime because there is no one there."

Tracking Elephants To Watering Holes

The second poacher, who gives his name as Salma Abdallah, is 35 and wears a dirty Dallas Cowboys jersey.

"Elephants fear for their lives so it's not easy to spot them," he says. "We'll walk for five days or more. We find them when they go to drink water in the afternoon or go to a forest to feed."

Abdallah says he goes out with about 10 guys, each with a different role.

"I am the shooter," he says.

Asian demand for ivory fuels the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. A leading source of ivory is Tanzania, including these tusks confiscated in 2009 in Haiphong, Vietnam.
STR / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Asian demand for ivory fuels the illegal poaching of elephants in Africa. A leading source of ivory is Tanzania, including these tusks confiscated in 2009 in Haiphong, Vietnam.

"While we're out, we'll shoot an impala or wildebeest for food, dry the leftover meat and bring it back to the village to sell," he adds.

Both poachers have poisoned elephants with pesticide-spiked pumpkins or other fruit, but they said that method is inefficient.

They use large-caliber hunting rifles. After the kill, they hack off the tusks with an ax. They usually take six to eight elephants per trip.

Scientists tell us that elephants have death rituals. They will, for instance, cluster around a dead individual and touch the carcass with their trunks, and then return much later to caress the bones.

Mkanga, the first poacher. is asked if he knows that elephants mourn their dead. He shifts in his chair, adjusts his Safari Beer cap, and smirks.

"Sometimes when they have a funeral, it's like a party for me," he says. "You shoot one, and before he dies the others come to mourn for the one who is injured. And so I kill another one, and kill another one."

Big Money In A Poor Place

"Sometimes when I finish my business and I'm back at my house and I've gotten paid, I do feel like I've done something bad," he adds. "But when I don't have money to pay for my children's school fees or anything to eat, I say, 'Yeah, the game reserve is my shop. Let me go to the shop and kill.' "

Local sources say elephant tusks fetch about $60 a kilo (2.2 pounds). That's $12,000 for a 200 kilogram (440 pound) consignment of ivory in a country where the per capita income is $125 a month.

Wildlife activists, government officials, safari operators and poachers say the elephant herds of the Selous are being systematically wiped out.

They confirm a 2010 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, in London, which points to the Selous as one of Africa's worst elephant killing fields. DNA tests conducted on nearly 1,500 tusks seized in 2006 at seaports in Taiwan and Hong Kong traced them to elephants in the Selous and neighboring Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

Tanzania's natural resources minister, Khamis Kagasheki, was brought in five months ago to clean up his notoriously corrupt agency, strengthen protection for game reserves and crack down on poachers. He says Mloka will be one of his first targets.

"The biggest poaching community is protected by the leadership in Mloka, this I know," he says. "And believe me, I sent them a message, I'm going to move after them."

In the first week of October, rangers reportedly shot two poachers inside the reserve. Mloka residents were so furious they temporarily blocked the road and wouldn't let tourists in or out.

Meanwhile, Mkanga, the poacher, insists he has given up poaching and gone back to farming. He's asked if he cares whether his four children might not be able to see a wild elephant.

"Yeah, sure," he says distractedly, "that would be very sad."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.