elephantOn September 7, six suspected poachers were arrested near the Niassa wildlife reserve in Mozambique. The men are believed to be part of a larger poaching ring that has ties to the illegal ivory trade in Tanzania. 

Illegal elephant and rhino killings have surged in recent years, driven in part by the soaring demand for ivory in Asia. Raw ivory could go for as much as $750/kg in 2010; today, the price has nearly tripled.

This has led African guerilla groups to turn to poaching as a means of funding and arming their militias. Last year, an estimated 20,000 elephants were killed for their ivory tusks.

“The consumer markets, like China and Thailand, have more disposable income and more wealth than they did back in the 1980s, and higher prices are now being sought for ivory products,” says Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor of wildlife conservation and advocacy for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. “So now we’re seeing international criminal gangs coming in and poaching.”

In Mozambique, the elephant population has been reduced to about half of what it was in the 1970s. In this year alone, poachers have killed about 500 elephants in the country’s Niassa reserve.

“There is no way that we are going to address this problem with a reactive approach,” says Alastair Nelson, director of the Mozambique branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The country’s government has acknowledged that the poaching impacts tourism, even introducing new legislation to crack down on poachers and disrupt Mozambique’s reputation as a transit point for trafficking South African rhino horns.

This recent arrest, carried out by Mozambican environmental police, is a rare victory for anti-poaching forces. The Niassa reserve is 42,000 square kilometers, two times the size of Kruger National Park, and the terrain can be treacherous. Its vast size and forest cover also make it difficult to surveil with remote-controlled drones.

The alleged poachers were captured in a house near the Niassa reserve after almost a year of investigation. The men currently face charges of illegal possession of firearms and organized crime activity.

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