Ruaha National Park – Where are the Elephants?

While preparing for a safari the following news reached me: “Shocking absence of elephants in Tanzania’s Selous game reserve

The article mentions a recent elephant count from the air that shows a sharp decline of elephants since the previous count. One traveler woman was even cited with not having seen a single elephant while in Selous Game Reserve.Now Selous is not a National Park meaning that hunting is allowed with proper permits. While these information seem to point to illegal poaching and sale of ivory to China (or stockpiling in the US until elephants are extinct, as some very sarcastic fellow has suggested), some caution is advised. The method to count elephants from the air is not without caveats and if not done right might lead to double counts or numbers that are too low.

According to the news article the Tanzanian government is also refusing to publish the report of the 2014 Ruaha count, citing a lack of carcasses confirming the deaths.

Dar_Ruaha_Zanzibar

Travelling to Ruaha two weeks ago I was a bit worried about the prospects of seeing a park where all animals have been shot. My four days in Ruaha National Park confirmed indeed the absence of  carcasses. What could be found were a few clean skulls of various animals but there were hardly any other bones to be found.

As the rich trophic structure of wildlife has many specialist for hunting, killing, meat consumption, sinew removal and bone crushing there is hardly a trace left of a dead animal a few days after it was killed. The only thing that cannot be recycled are the skulls of large animals. And skulls are difficult to spot from airplanes.

Another observation I was able to make: In remoter areas of the park animals are shy to cars. I could not distinguished if it was because they see so few cars (as our guide suggested) or if the animals had become shy as a result of illegal hunting.

While in Ruaha we observed a small plane flying overhead on 2 of 4 days, apparently  to check the park. I doubt very much that any hunting party could remain undetected when the vegetation is as thin as in the dry season. And there are generally no rifles in a National Park, so any poacher’s gear in a passing car might raise suspicion.

I am happy to report that I saw many elephants in Ruaha, in some areas even more than impalas.  This doesn’t mean that there could not have been a sharp decline. Let’s wait for the next count and act accordingly. It is the understanding of the people I talked to that poaching cannot occur in large numbers without some involvement of corrupt officials.

It looks like this is not the case in Ruaha. That’s why the wildlife was amazing.  I saw lots of other animals as well, had some close encounters and it was a very rewarding trip, especially as our guide had very good eyes for spotting even small animals.

Just check out the gallery.

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