A Small Team Achieves Big Results for Wildlife, People, and the Land
April 12, 2017
By African People & Wildlife
Gerard Raphael and TPW's community scout team patrol the Maasai Steppe landscape. (Photo: Felipe Rodriguez)
Gerard Raphael surveys the horizon of the vast Maasai Steppe landscape, always on high alert for any sign of danger or illegal activity. As the deputy commander of a small but dedicated team of community game scouts, Raphael is responsible for policing the lands of his own community—sometimes hiking in the heat for up to 20 miles a day—all in the name of protecting wildlife.
Supported by Tanzania People & Wildlife (TPW), the team of eight scouts patrols more than 550 square kilometers of wilderness—by Land Rover, motorbike, and foot—of the Maasai Steppe just outside of Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. A landscape rich in biodiversity that includes lions, wild dogs, elephants, and other key wildlife species, this acacia-covered savannah also encompasses critical migratory routes for wildebeest, zebra, and other wild animals dispersing outside of the park during the rainy season.
In this remote and rugged landscape, the scouts serve as a rapid response team, tracking down and arresting poachers, breaking up illegal charcoal operations, and rescuing lost children and cattle. They also conduct twice-monthly wildlife counts of critical species to help determine how TPW’s programs are impacting local wildlife and habitats.
Before the scout team was mobilized, the area experienced rampant and unchecked levels of illegal bushmeat hunting, as well as elephant poaching. The immense skull and bones from one of those fallen elephants, killed in 2013, still lies scattered over the plains not far from TPW’s field headquarters, the Noloholo Environmental Center.
Community scouts examine the skull and bones of an elephant that was poached in 2013. (Photo: Felipe Rodriguez)
Raphael recalls the sound of the gunshots, an unmistakable sign that poachers are nearby. “The team immediately mobilized and started sweeping the area where we suspected the shots came from. We didn't find any tracks, but when we spoke to some of the local herding boys on their way home, they said that they had seen people wearing black balaclavas leaving the area recently. We continued to search for a carcass or signs, but found nothing. Two days later, we were dismayed when we picked up the unmistakable scent of a decaying elephant carcass. Following the scent to a dense thicket, we discovered the remains of a young bull elephant. The poachers had obviously shot it, taken off, and then returned at a later point to remove the tusks. Our failure to save this elephant really motivated us to do our best to prevent another loss. We now shadow any suspected individuals 24/7 until they vacate the region. That was one of the last elephants we lost.”
The elephant’s remains are not only a reminder of the danger and threats to wildlife in East Africa but a testament to the progress that Raphael’s team has made in the area. There have been no elephant slaughtered in recent years, and bushmeat poaching incidents, in which hunters kill animals in order to sell the meat in local markets, have steadily declined over the past six years under the team’s watchful eyes. In 2016, the scouts apprehended eight suspected poachers, with one court case regarding a poached giraffe still ongoing.
The scouts also effectively dealt with 16 incidents of illegal logging and charcoal production over the past year. Local people sometimes clear entire woodlands to make charcoal, a product in high demand nationwide for use in cooking fires. The results are devastating for critical wildlife habitats.
Despite the previous damage that has been done to the landscape, the scout team’s efforts are leading to signs of recovery. Recent wildlife counts and carnivore sightings have shown a sustained increase in key wildlife populations—including zebras, impalas, giraffes, lions, and wild dogs—for five consecutive years. A locally-endangered herd of fringe-eared oryx has also returned to the area for a third consecutive year.
Key wildlife populations in the community scouts' target area have shown a sustained increase over the last five years. (Photo: Laly Lichtenfeld)
The role of Raphael and his team goes far beyond local law enforcement and data collection. All hail from the same community, Loibor Siret, where TPW makes its home. In addition to protecting wildlife, the village scouts serve as community liaisons and ambassadors for conservation and are highly valued as leaders in their communities.
“We try to educate the people about the importance of conservation,” Raphael explains. “At first, back in 2010 when we started, the community had very little understanding of our roles and responsibilities. They saw us as another wildlife authority out to get them or impose restrictions on their land. After seeing the efforts that we go to in order to help the community, especially with human-wildlife conflict, people are now getting behind our efforts. With today's population growth, expansion, and the increase in outsiders immigrating to this area, the pressure on natural resources is extreme. Everyone realizes that without the enforcement of protection measures, they will have nothing left. People are also recognizing the potential benefits of protecting local wildlife. Loibor Siret now has its own community campsite, and many people understand that wildlife is a big tourism draw.”
Raphael remains part of the local community and has a wife and daughter in Loibor Siret. He continues to keep livestock but maintains a smaller herd than he did in the past. With more and more pastoral lands being converted into farms, and with human populations doubling every 20 years on average, cattle herders are running out of land on which to graze their livestock. The environment and lifestyle of the Maasai has changed significantly since Raphael was a boy, and he is contemplative as he envisions what the future may hold for the next generations.
“It is so critical to protect the environment. With climate change and other challenges, natural resources are stressed for all—wild animals and people,” Raphael says. “This gives us all the more reason to conserve our wild habitats."
TPW currently receives support for the community scouts from the USAID Endangered Ecosystems of Northern Tanzania (EENT) project hosted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative (NTRI). With additional support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), TPW is integrating and coordinating its scout program with others across the landscape, including Honeyguide (HG) which is providing the rapid response team with training and leadership.