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Poaching giraffes – a growing business in Tanzania

Posted by on 18 April 2011

The Citizen (Tanzanian newspaper) ran a story on giraffe poaching today. For those who don’t know, the giraffe is Tanzania’s national symbol /emblem and, as such, it is protected by law. Though an exception decree can be granted by the president, for the most part, killing giraffes can result in jail time. The journalists cite two sets of censuses (albeit one that is somewhat outdates) to assess the giraffe numbers in the country.

In 2002 there were 6712 giraffes in Selous National Game Reserve (the largest animal reserve in Africa) while in 2006 the numbers shrank to 3163. On the other hand, in 2006, in Serengheti (probably the most famous reservation in Africa) there were 5246 giraffes while in 2010 the numbers rose to 12,078.

Now, the numbers for Serengheti can be very misleading. As some of you might know, Serengheti is next to Massai Mara (Kenya’s national park) and the two reservations form a trans-frontier game reserve park. In brief, animals are allowed to move freely from one country to another, and indeed, every year, there is a 2000 mile journey that millions of animals undertake to avoid the dry season. So the fact that the numbers are up in Serengheti might just be the result of the annual migration, not that the giraffe population has been more protected in the north of the country.

Of giraffe poaching – notes from ethnographic trips

Incidentally, I know quite a bit about giraffe poaching. Two years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Arusha (Tanzania’s tourist capital, located close to Serengheti) wrapping up my research on Chinese entrepreneurs in the northern part of Tanzania. One of the close friends of my host was an Indian game restaurant/ guesthouse owner who also had his own estate located next to Serengheti. I probably met him 5 or 6 times during my stay in Arusha and every time we had a beer together he had two topics he constantly wanted to talk about: giraffes and me marrying his daughter.

While not a poacher himself, this restaurant owner did buy giraffe meat and in fact also exported it. Illegally, of course! As the owner of a game restaurant, he was expected to offer various exotic animals on his menu: giraffes, kudus, crocodiles and zebras. He had his own network of supply that would always be able to provide him with the meat he needed.

But the thing that struck me was that he also exported giraffe meat. Basically, he sold it to restaurant owners in Kenya under a cover operation of exporting beef. So what my acquaintance did was as simple as this: every month he would send a large shipment of meat from Arusha to Nairobi (a six hour drive) in a large truck freezer. Among the thousands of pounds of beef he would also include giraffe meat. And the secret was in the expiration date. Basically, the guy would put the correct expiration dates on all the packages but the date for the giraffe meat packs would be different from all the other packs. So even if the border patrol stopped his driver’s car they wouldn’t be able to find out his illegal meat. After all, what could they do – open every single pack of meat?

What transpires from this story has broader implications for both Tanzania and East Africa in general. With the reactivation of the East African Community, various opportunities for Tanzanian entrepreneurs were put on the table. Given the fact that Kenya – for all its corruption scandals and political instability – has a much more functional legal and penal system than the neighboring countries, a branch of commerce such as the one regarding the trafficking of illegal game meat suddenly became a new opportunity for Tanzanian citizens. Another terrifying example of this is the trafficking of Albino body parts which has also flourished in Tanzania with the help of businessmen from neighboring countries who wanted to get access to the Albino Medicine (if you want to read more about this, click here).

All in all, the giraffe might very well become an endangered species in Tanzania. Since killing one giraffe will provide a poacher with a substantial amount of meat and with significant revenues this phenomenon will not stop. In addition, it is fair to assume that some of the game rangers working in Serengheti and Selous are also in cahoots with the poachers since they are paid meager salaries (250 dollars per month or less).  And with a conservative estimate of 20 giraffes killed every month, Tanzania’s emblem might very well become a rarity in its own natural environment.

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