JOHANNESBURG — The recent arrests of six suspected poachers on a vast wildlife reserve in Mozambique are seen by conservationist as rare good news in a country that long viewed as lacking the will and resources to stem the slaughter of elephants and other species under threat.
The poaching ring had been operating in the Niassa National Reserve, which is twice the size of South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park, where the rhino population has been hit hard by poachers, many of whom cross over from Mozambique.
The Sept. 7 detentions in the southern African nation followed nearly a year of investigative work, illustrating the challenges of policing rugged areas where armed poachers hike on expeditions that often last two weeks and sometimes kill elephants with single shots targeting vital organs.
Some 200 scouts supported by a spotter plane and intermittent helicopter flights work in Niassa, an area of 42,000 square kilometers (16,200 square miles) that is home to about two-thirds of Mozambique's elephants. Park managers have ruled out using aerial drones as a form of surveillance, saying the hill-spotted, woodland expanse in northern Mozambique, on the border with Tanzania, is just too big.
Niassa is one of many battlegrounds around Africa where conservationists are struggling to stop poachers, who have annually killed tens of thousands of elephants across the continent in recent years because of a surge in demand for ivory in Asia, primarily China. Authorities in the Mozambican park are planning more law enforcement operations in an attempt to break up the several rings known to operate there.
"There is no way that we are going to address this problem with a reactive approach," said Alastair Nelson, director of the Mozambique program for the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Niassa reserve along with the Mozambican government.
The recent arrests targeted a group with links to illegal ivory trade rings in Tanzania and is believed to have killed dozens of elephants this year, Nelson said. Four Tanzanians were among those detained and tusks and rifles were seized, he said in a telephone interview.
The suspects, who were arrested shortly after midnight in a house near the Niassa reserve, face charges including illegal possession of firearms and organized crime activity. They could be imprisoned and fined if they are convicted.
Mozambique has faced international criticism for not doing enough to crack down on poaching, but new legislation has stiffened penalties for poachers: Anyone who illegally kills an animal of a protected species can go to jail for eight to 12 years. The government is also starting to deploy environmental police into the Niassa reserve and elsewhere, according to Wildlife Conservation Society officials.
Mozambique's tourism minister, Carvalho Muaria, has warned that poaching will hurt tourism and economic development, and authorities there have acknowledged the country is a transit point for the trafficking of South African rhino horns bound for Asia.
"Mozambique is seen as a country that could be doing much more," said Philip Muruthi, senior director of conservation science at the non-profit African Wildlife Foundation, which based in Kenya.
Mozambique's elephant population has declined since the early 1970s by about half to 20,000, according to Muruthi. The Niassa reserve has about 12,000 elephants. Poachers have killed 500 elephants there so far this year and have wiped out Mozambique's rhinos.
In the past week in Niassa, poachers killed an elephant with an assault rifle but fled without hacking off the tusks, apparently scared by rangers patrolling in a helicopter. Park scouts spent the night near the carcass and then removed its tusks in the morning so the poachers could not return for them.