Ruvuma’s success points way to battle the poaching scourge
Martina Polley
31 May, 2014

A community elephant project in Tanzania has reduced elephant poaching numbers by more than half in two years. Martina Polley investigates how working outside of wildlife reserves is as important as working within them.

The Ruvuma Elephant Project (REP) operates within the wildlife corridor connecting the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Niassa National Park in Mozambique. Here, where wildlife roams between two unfenced game reserves, an innovative strategy has been put in place to turn the tide on elephant poaching.

Over a two year period from December 2011 to November 2013 (aerial patrols were only introduced 10 months in) the number of elephant carcasses recorded in the REP area dropped from 216 in year one to 68 carcasses in year two. Wayne Lotter, director of PAMS Foundation (Protected Areas Management Support) who oversees the REP, believes a multi departmental approach and community involvement are the formula to success.

“Poachers spend 80% of their time, not in the parks doing the poaching, they spend over 80% of their time outside in these communities and so forth”, explains Lotter “They talk amongst their friends and that’s where we focus on catching them. You have to have people infiltrating those areas, plain clothed, working undercover, just mingling, going to pubs, making friends and talking. You pick up leads there. We make 80% of our arrests outside of the bush. It’s done in towns and in community areas.”

Ruvuma elephant PAMS Foundation Tanzania

The REP has halved the number of elephants poached in their area in 2 years. Shouldn’t SA take a few pointers from their anti-poaching strategy? Photo via PAMS Foundation.

Lotter pins the lack of good relationships between community members and protected area authorities as one of the problems leading to community participation in commercial poaching. “This is the case with the neighbours of every protected area. It’s a minority of cases where people are actually happy with a game reserve or a national park,” he says. “The issues are you have a farm. You have elephants and other herbivores that come out and graze your crops. You’ve got leopards and lions that kill your goats and your cattle. It impacts directly on their livelihood. Generally they don’t get compensated by conservation. These are areas where people live and wildlife roam as well.   Villagers get killed by elephants; at night people are walking around and there are encounters with hippo.  They’re not getting any benefit from the wildlife.”

For this reason REP has gone out of their way to create opportunities in the villages within the wildlife corridor. One such method involves bees and chillies.

The team PAMS Foundation

The REP has trained over 200 game scouts from local villages in basic anti poaching skills and case preparation. Photo via PAMS Foundation.

“We brought in hot chillies to solve the crop raiding issue. Using sisal rope and mutton cloth, we applied hot chilli sauce onto a single rope installed around the crops as a barrier.” Lotter explains, “So far it has had a 100% success rate.” The chilli fences have also created a business opportunity: After the first year the REP gave the villagers chilli seeds to grow. Now REP buys chilli peppers from them and set up a market so chillies can be sold as a cash crop.

Elephants are fearful of bees. Just the sound of bees swarming will cause elephants to move off and for this reason the REP has placed bee hives every 15 metres, dividing a rope perimeter around a crop.

Since the establishment of the REP in August 2011, over 200 game scouts have been trained in basic anti poaching skills and case preparation and are paid for doing patrols. “It’s an income that’s better than local employment opportunities…it isn’t really big bucks but it is sustainable money.” rationalises Lotter.

Results from patrols and other law enforcement interventions since the project started include the seizure of 1,582 snares; 25,586 illegal timber (pieces); 175 elephant tusks; 805 firearms; 1, 531 rounds of ammunition; 6 vehicles; 15 motorcycles; the arrest of 563 people; and the discovery of 284 elephant carcasses and 17 other wildlife carcasses that were believed to have been illegally killed.

Foundation Ruvuma Elephant Project Tanzania Mozambique poaching

Trained village game scouts are paid to patrol; an income better than local employment opportunities. Photo via PAMS Foundation.

REP doesn’t operate in islolation, they’ve adopted an intelligence led multi-departmental (national parks, police, security, customs, army, etc.) approach. ”You’ve got to mix it up,” says Lotter “and you’ve got to get all law enforcement involved. You might work with the units that work for example on narcotics, because there are always overlaps. So that expertise is really needed. When it comes to corruption, you can corrupt any single department and there are many… you’ve got to have other agencies mandated to cross check with each other. It becomes much harder for the criminal networks to understand and to control the situation if it’s multi departmental.”

Rhino poaching continues unabated in the Kruger National Park. Lotter believes the anti-poaching strategy adopted in Kruger and other South African reserves fulfils Einstein’s definition of insanity: To keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  It’s long been predicted that the scourge of ivory poaching affecting East Africa will slowly creep south, with Southern Africa’s elephants the next to be targeted. Just this month the first elephant was poached in Kruger National Park in over ten years. When will we revise our strategy?

“There is no shortage of resources,” says Lotter. “They’ve got all the equipment they need to run that operation soundly, but the rhino losses are worse every year. So it isn’t a case of not having enough money. The Kruger rangers are well trained,equipped and ready to patrol the area. But when poachers go into protected areas, they’re armed, dangerous and they’re alert.” What Lotter suggests is the decision to poach has long been made. The difference with the REP is they’re stopping the poaching before it reaches the park. In South Africa, we are waiting in the bush, on the frontline.

Latest SA rhino poaching statistics according to DEA

South Africa’s rising rhino poaching statistics. May 2014 via Department of Environmental Affairs.


REP’s descending no. of elephant carcasses observed from Dec 2011 to Nov 2013.

Helen Mmethi, GM of People and Conservation in the Kruger National Park has worked to improve the relations and opportunities for people living on the western and southern border of Kruger National Park but her department is only responsible for the communities living within South Africa and until recently there hasn’t been much interaction with Mozambique or the villagers living on the other side.

Unlike the REP, her department does not work with the Anti Poaching Unit at Kruger National Park, a partnership that could be mutually beneficial. “For now, we haven’t seen it,” explains Mmethi. “Our department should educate our colleagues so they can understand how through a partnership we can add value. I think it’s something that’s on the board, we just have to work on it.”

This month, representatives from Mozambique and South Africa completed a draft Implementation Plan for the Memorandum of Understanding, signed by both countries in April. Although Mmethi was not invited to the meeting, the Department of Environmental Affairs has confirmed that Major General Johan Jooste, the head of Anti Poaching at Kruger National Park was present and that both Jooste and Mmethi will be part of the committee overseeing the Implementation Plan. Outcomes of the draft Implementation plan include re-erecting fences along the eastern border, which is highly controversial as it would once again restrict elephant movements; strengthening of the buffer zone in Mozambique through the establishment of the Greater Lubombo Conservancy and deploying a well armed anti-poaching unit to work with the Kruger National Park team. The plan is scheduled to be finalised and signed by the end of July 2014.

Historically, the response to poaching in South Africa has been to treat the symptoms rather than the causes. Right now, the country is at risk of continuing its legacy of reactive anti-poaching strategies. The Ruvuma Elephant Project has demonstrated how if you genuinely involve all the stakeholders, you can curb poaching. A small beacon of hope, the Ruvuma Elephant Project offers an African solution to an African problem; the current anti-poaching norms are not the only way to solve the wildlife poaching crisis.