Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve in Trouble: Poaching, Dams and Mining. By Dr. Rolf D. Baldus.

Africa’s Oldest Protected Area

The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, covering some 50,000 square kilometers, is Africa’s oldest and largest contiguous, uninhabited nature reserve. Due to its universal importance it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. After that a combination of poor management and poaching caused the elephant population to drop from over 100,000 to less than 30,000 (1989).

A German-Tanzanian development project, the Selous Conservation Program (SCP), was established in 1988 and continued until 2003.  This proved to be a turning point. Poaching was brought to a standstill, and the elephant population recovered to over 70,000 (2003).

Several large-scale, environmentally destructive projects were also blocked during that time. Previously, the game reserve was totally dependent on meagre funding from the Tanzanian government’s general budget but the SCP implemented a scheme that retained fifty percent of the revenues earned by the reserve. Ninety percent of those funds came from sustainable safari hunting which ensured that good conservation practices were implemented.

The Killing Fields

When German support ended in late 2005, the head of the Wildlife Authority immediately reduced the retention scheme payment from US $ 3 million annually to US $ 500 000. The park administration collapsed like two decades before, anti-poaching efforts were greatly reduced and the slaughter began once again.

Looking back one can only conclude that this was a well-prepared and collusive action. According to official counts more than 60,000 elephants were killed. The ivory was smuggled through Zanzibar, Pemba in Mozambique and other ports as well as by air to Southeast Asia, principally China, by Chinese cartels in collaboration with corrupt officials. More than US-$ 100 million changed hands along the value chain, from the bush to the Asian markets. The business was worthwhile for all the parties involved.

Global seizures showed that the Selous-Niassa ecosystem was the poaching hot spot for savanna elephant for several years. An aerial elephant census in 2013 found that only about 13,000 of the pachyderms had survived in the Selous ecosystem.

“World Heritage Site in Danger”

UNESCO consequently declared the reserve a World Heritage Site in Danger not only because of the poaching but also for the planned mining developments and other large-scale projects. An area of three hundred square kilometers was cut out of the reserve in the south-west for a Russian uranium mine. A particularly environmentally-harmful bleaching process will be utilized to wash the uranium-containing rock from the soil with water.

The fall of the price of uranium on the world market has delayed this project. However, other prospecting concessions in the reserve have been awarded. Mining is in contravention of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, which Tanzania has signed. When the World Heritage Commission of UNESCO gave green light to the deregistration of three hundred square kilometers this was done with the common understanding that Tanzania would not undertake further major development projects without seeking agreement with UNESCO first.

The results of the 2013 elephant census were a wake-up call. The Tanzanian government vowed to combat poaching and the revenue retention scheme was reintroduced. Benson Kibonde, a retired former reserve manager who had had great success in managing the park, was brought back.

In addition, an ad hoc program was initiated by the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) and supported by German development cooperation, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS). It provided about 400,000 Euros as emergency financial assistance mainly in the form of equipment. Poaching decreased, and a census in 2015 showed that the elephant population was stabilizing.

A New Cooperation Project

In 2013, the German Government, through the German Development Bank (KfW), was invited by the Tanzanian Government to come to their assistance once again. An aid program worth eighteen million Euros was initiated.

The idea was to emulate the direction and approach of the earlier SCP involving both the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The FZS has been operating in the Selous for quite some time. The project is only now getting off the ground after many years of delays.

In Germany there are politicians and top-level civil servants across party lines who support conservation efforts in Tanzania, especially in the Serengeti and Selous. KfW instruments are not really suitable for conservation projects and are extremely lengthy. At the same time many of the delays in the project preparations are due to Tanzanian Government. One can’t help wondering whether the state authorities have any interest in rehabilitating the Selous.

Currently there is the impression that the Tanzanian government is reneging on its long-standing commitment to conservation.  Ownership is being lost. Still, wildlife tourism remains one of the most important industries and foreign exchange sources in the country.

President Magufuli, an increasingly autocratic ruling populist, is more and more pursuing a policy reminiscent of Nyerere’s African socialism.

With a strong hand he tries to ensure order in a land shaken by corruption scandals. Whether he will be successful remains doubtful. Wildlife tourism, to date the country’s second most important economic sector, is losing political priority. Magufuli dreams of state-controlled industrialization. Under Nyerere the same political vision failed miserably. Without regard for environmental concerns, President Magufuli has approved plans for a road to be built in the middle of the Selous (from Ilonga to Liwale). There is also a plan for a dam on the Ruvu River on the northeastern edge of the Selous near Kidunda. This dam, which has been in the planning stages for twenty-five years, would have disastrous effects for the wildlife in the Northern Selous and in a wildlife management area north of the boundary. Mining is also set to continue.

The biggest threat to the Selous, however, is the decision to build a mega dam (2,100 megawatts) in the heart of the reserve at Stiegler’s Gorge.  The economics of the project are unclear as it is not known who will pay for the project and the ecological consequences will be devastating.

(to be continued)


Dr. Rolf D. Baldus is a German economist, who has assisted the Chief Warden of the Selous Game Reserve and supported the Wildlife Department in Tanzania under a Government Agreement for 13 years. He is the main author of the reference book on the Selous Game Reserve: Wild Heart of Africa (2009) Rowland Ward Publishers/Safari Press