Poaching, hunting, charcoal production, burning, human wildlife conflict, pollution and climate change. Tanzanian wildlife is under attack by humans like never before. In just a month and a half, I have witnessed a vast array of human activities that are endangering the wildlife of the Kilombero valley, one of the key global biodiversity centres.
Situated in close proximity to Mikumi National Park, the Udzungwa Mountains National Park and the Selous Game Reserve, the Kilombero valley has historically been a key wildlife corridor for the migration of animals between the three protected areas, as well as hosting several endemic species. However, the valley is becoming increasingly under threat from human activities.
Over recent decades, the valley has experienced a population boom, a result of increased growth rates and a large influx of people immigrating from the surrounding valleys. Attracted by the fertile land and water availability, the ever growing population is beginning to impose major pressures on the area’s rich biodiversity, causing many wild species to suffer dramatic population declines in recent years. Both conservationists and local people have noted the dramatic decline in wildlife over the last five years, highlighted by some recent socioeconomic surveys we have undertaken in Kichangani.
One of the major threats to wildlife is the high rate of poaching in the area. Historically, the Selous Game Reserve has been very vulnerable to poaching and has even caused dramatic selection for tuskless elephants in the area. This pressure is not just historical though, as it still poses a major threat to the local elephant populations today. The main road that runs through the valley is believed to host one of the main trafficking routes for ivory in Africa. Each day, lorries pass through the valley, some possessing ivory smuggled deep within giant bags of rice. Despite numerous police control points along the road, little ivory is confiscated as it is difficult to detect within the massive loads. And then of course there is corruption which is believed to be rife in the area, with many officials happy to take bribes to permit onward travel. The ivory trafficking in the area has become a seriously dangerous business. Attempts are being made to protect these endangered species, with rangers patrolling the borders of the Selous Game Reserve, including our study site of Iluma. The danger they face is clearly evident though, as each ranger has to permanently carry his own AK47 just to protect themselves from any poachers they might encounter.
Ivory poaching is not the only form of poaching widespread in the area. Many of the other iconic African mammals are under threat from poaching for bushmeat. Poverty is common across the Kilombero valley, with many struggling to feed themselves with a healthy balanced diet. Especially difficult to overcome is the protein deficiency in their diet, causing many to turn to bushmeat in search of a source of protein. Easy access to metal snares and other weapons is seriously threatening many species, with many accessible “wild” areas extremely derelict of animals now. Zebra, wildebeest, impala, hartebeest and reedbuck which not too long ago freely roamed the valley are now difficult to see as the bushmeat trade has restricted them to well patrolled protected areas only. Mammals are not the only victim of the bushmeat trade either as terrapins from the local rivers are also caught for consumption. The trade is so evident that even some children approached us to ask if we wanted to purchase a terrapin they had caught.
Poaching is not just restricted to animals either. The harvesting of large trees for charcoal production is also having a devastating impact on the valley’s wildlife. Charcoal has experienced growing support over other fuels in Tanzania over recent years as it provides a more efficient and cleaner fuel for cooking and heating than other energy sources, such as firewood. Charcoal has become so popular that 7,000 bags of charcoal are believed to be consumed in Dar-es-Salaam each day, much of which is produced in the Morogoro region that also includes the Kilombero valley. The charcoal industry has become lucrative within Tanzania, causing many people to risk illegal practices to harvest this fuel, and consequently cause rapid deforestation and woodland degradation. Just this week, we caught two poachers blatantly converting timber into charcoal in smoking pits in the protected Iluma Wildlife Management Area (WMA). We were able to arrest one of them, whilst the other was able to escape in time, but not without having his charcoal, equipment and bike being confiscated. It was a clear reminder to all of us that even protected areas are not immune to human activities.
The dry season in Tanzania also plays host to one of the other major threats to the wildlife in the Kilombero valley: Burning. As the grasses begin to dry, many people that inhabit the area begin to burn their crops in attempts to make the soil more fertile for next season’s growth. However, burning does not stop there. As the population continues to grow, competition for land is growing too. More and more people are struggling to grow enough food to feed their family, forcing many people to burn the remaining wild areas in order to generate new agricultural land, in the process frying the land. Habitat destruction from human-induced fires is now a major threat to wildlife globally, and in Tanzania it is evident this is also the case. To make matters even worse, many government-employed rangers now believe fire is a key management tool for protected areas, as they regularly burn the area to induce the growth of new grasses to feed the herbivores. It is true that African savannahs need fire for new grasses to grow, but the ecosystem has evolved to survive natural patterns of fire. With the introduction of regular human fires, the ecosystem is becoming increasingly vulnerable to a phase shift, as many species that rely on long periods between fires or higher fire loads can no longer survive, running the risk of extinction. It is worrying to witness that even “in-the-know” people are threatening the natural balance of these biodiverse ecosystems.
Moreover, since arriving in Tanzania, I have witnessed more human-wildlife conflict as local people struggle to make a living. Wild animals are worsening the low crop yields creating conflict. Our socioeconomic surveys have revealed that almost everyone is experiencing crop losses from wild animals, especially baboons and bushpigs. Many people threaten to retaliate against these animals to protect their food source. Other animals that endanger humans are also suffering from human-wildlife conflict. Snakes are one of the most affected taxa by human-wildlife conflict in the area. Most local people are scared of snakes and think of nothing to kill any individuals they encounter. I have witnessed this firsthand, finding a large rock python, killed simply for being dangerous! It was devastating to see such a majestic animal reduced to nothing, simply because poorly educated people fail to understand these creatures.
Poaching, deforestation and human-wildlife conflict are just the tip of the iceberg of the threats the Kilombero valley’s flora and fauna are facing. Overfishing is destroying the freshwater ecosystems as large and small fish alike are caught to feed more and more people. Pollution of rivers and terrestrial habitats is reaching new levels as more and more people are shifting to plastic products. A lack of waste management means plastic has nowhere to go after it has been used. Consequently, it is either burnt, buried or dumped in the rivers, polluting the air, ground and water. Climate change is also starting to impact the area, with droughts worsening, converting the land into a dust bowl and increasing soil erosion. Finally, overgrazing of the land has occurred as the area’s livestock population grows. Overflowing into protected areas, livestock production is converting land to grassland and forcing out wild herbivores that compete for the same food.
Witnessing the impact of humans on the wildlife here has been a pretty harrowing experience and a real eye-opener. Efforts to improve the situation are trying to be made with increased patrolling of protected areas, new land management plans and increased education of conservation issues to local children. I just hope I can contribute to these conservation efforts, through teaching at local schools and by surveying an area that has been proposed for increased protection.