Arusha. The security of the remaining endangered rhinos in the Serengeti National Park has received a boost and will now include aerial patrols, the government has revealed.
More armed rangers have also been deployed in the vast park since last month’s killing of one of the rhinos, George, which arrived from South Africa last May.
The minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr Ezekiel Maige, said the government was deeply concerned by increased poaching in the Serengeti National Park.
He admitted, when speaking to journalists in Serengeti on Sunday, that the poachers posed a great threat not only to the rhinos but also to other protected wild animals.
He said an operation to track down the rhino killers was underway and that already 10 suspects have so far been arrested.
Several measures were now underway to ensure that such wanton destruction of the country’s wildlife heritage would not happen again, he revealed.
“The measures include introducing regular patrols in the area using helicopters and increasing the number of rangers on the ground,” he said.
Mr Maige, who spoke to reporters after meeting with an Indian billionaire, Mr Mukesh Ambani, added that on-foot patrols inside and around the park would be strengthened.
“Measures being taken also include reinforcing intelligence gathering machinery, besides the normal patrols,” he pointed out, calling for support from local communities.
On the possibility of some staff members of the Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa) colluding with poachers, the minister distanced himself from the claims.
According to him, it was unlikely that any Tanapa rangers could have a hand in the increasing incidences of poaching, especially in and around the Senapa.
“So far, no Tanapa workers have been reported as being directly involved in the poaching activities…However, we are screening them to find out if there are dishonest ones,” he stated before reporters at the luxurious Bilila Lodge Kempiski.
But the minister confirmed that investigations have been mounted to establish the circumstances under which George, a young male rhino, was felled by poachers mid last month.
Mr Ambani, who spent three days enjoying game drives in the Serengeti, also expressed his concern on the increased poaching activities in the country’s largest game park.
He implored Tanzanians to protect the Serengeti given its global significance as an unmatched wildlife splendour, whose status was elevated to the world’s eighth natural wonder in 2006.
“The (poaching) menace should be put to an end because it is damaging Tanzania’s outstanding efforts in wildlife conservation,” he said.
Incidentally, the billionaire – who left for his home country on Sunday evening – was presented with a wooden sculpture of a rhino by the minister during their brief encounter on Sunday.
On Saturday, Mr Maige spent hours visiting various ranger posts used for the protection of rhinos in Serengeti and was briefed on how they have been effective in fighting poachers.
And on Sunday afternoon, an air borne anti poaching squad demonstrated before journalists tactics it would employ to enhance patrols and fight poachers at the Ikoma gate post.
This was the second time Mr Maige was commenting on the killing of the rhino, an incident which also enraged some wildlife experts and donor agencies supporting Tanapa.
After the December 11 incident, the minister called for all culprits to be tracked down to face justice.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), a key partner in the rhino relocation project in Serengeti, said although they were not doubting Tanzania’s commitment in protecting the endangered animals, the matter should be investigated thoroughly.
“We will investigate the matter very closely to see whether there was a lack of protection and whether we must increase our efforts to guard the rhinos,” lamented Dr Markus Borner, FZS director for Africa Department.
The Serengeti National Park, also listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, is currently home to the endangered rhinos, which were reintroduced in the park from South Africa.
Dr Borner, who operates from the FZS regional office located in the middle of Serengeti, admitted that killing of rhinos and other animals could derail the Serengeti Rhino Repatriation Project (SRRP) which aims at boosting the rhino population in the game park.
This is a joint project between the ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Tanapa, Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (Tawiri), the South African National Parks (SANParks) and the Grumeti Fund.
FZS is providing technical expertise, the security preparations, logistics and post-release monitoring, among others.
He added that the incident was unfortunate considering efforts being made by the Tanzanian authorities and other parties to boost the population of the endangered animal by bringing more rhinos to Serengeti, their ancestral home.
The butchered George was among five eastern black rhinos which were translocated from South Africa and brought to Serengeti in May this year, where they were received by President Jakaya Kikwete.
The event commenced a two to three-year operation whereby a total of 32 black rhinos would be brought back to the territory of their ancestors, the vast Serengeti ecosystem that extends to several protected areas.
All rhinos under the project in Serengeti have been tagged with radio transmitters for close monitoring although some experts contend that the move does not guarantee their safety by 100 per cent because they are left to roam the wild like other animals.
The eastern black rhino is said to be the most endangered of the three remaining sub-species of black rhino, with 700 remaining in the wild in various parts of Africa. Less than 100 are found in Tanzania.
Rhino horns are widely sought-after trophies that are used for making traditional medicine in several Far East countries, notably China and Vietnam, despite the fact that they have been proven to contain no medicinal properties.
FZS officials said until about 40 years ago, an estimated 500 to 700 rhinos roamed the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem before illegal hunting for their treasured horns drove them to near extinction.
By the late 1970s the entire rhino population within the ecosystem which also included the adjacent Maswa Game Reserve and Ngorongoro Conservation Area had been reduced to only 10, due to wanton killing.
After the five rhinos were brought from South Africa last May, the remaining 27 were to be translocated to Tanzania in the next two to three years within the lifespan of SRRP, during which its implementation would be evaluated.