Lions, elephants and hippos have vanished from Kilombero valley after UK and US-funded projects helped turn a once-thriving habitat into farmland, teak, and sugar plantations
The long road from Dar es Salaam brings you through sparsely wooded hills and fields to the narrow northern neck of the Kilombero valley. There’s a bend in the road, then the land opens out, suddenly, in front of you.
Along the west side lie the steep-faced Udzungwa mountains, one of the last pristine rainforests in Tanzania. The Kilombero river runs through the red soils of the valley, flooding in November or December and subsiding by June. Down the longer eastern flank rise the Mahenge mountains, and beyond them, invisible, unfurls the vast territory of the Selous game reserve, one of the largest remaining chunks of African wilderness.
Ryan Shallom was 16 the first time he saw the Kilombero valley, in 1990. “There were 600 lions in the valley back then,” recalls Shallom, whose family were professional hunters, running trips for tourists and rich Tanzanians. The light tree cover in the valley’s higher ground, the rivers, the abundance of food and water, meant that this was a haven not just for elephants, lions and buffalo, but for all wildlife: a pocket Eden.
“We used to see herds of 100 elephants or more, buffalo in all directions. There was the world’s largest population of puku antelope, about 60,000. I think 75% of the world’s population of puku were in Kilombero.”
But from the mid-1990s the wildlife began to disappear. In 1998, elephant numbers in the valley were more than 5,000, according to data collected by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. Now elephants are rarely seen. The lions have gone too, although there are rumours that there is one male left. The puku are vanishing: Shallom estimates their numbers have fallen to just over 1,000. The crocodiles, hippos and zebra have all more or less vanished.
“We call it the ghost safari now,” says scientist turned safari-man Roy Hinde. “It’s devastating.”
For many years Kilombero valley defied change. Tribes such as the Pogoro, the Ndamba-Mbunga, the Hehe and the Ngindo had lived there for centuries or frequently travelled through. From 1800 onwards the Europeans – first Germans, then after the first world war, British – started to arrive, eyeing up the fertile soil and making enormous plans. But somehow their plans kept falling through.
A few years after Julius Nyerere became president of an independent Tanganyika in 1961, a British survey hypothesised “complete control of the flooding” in the valley to “free a vast area for irrigation”. But it never happened. Nyerere did not like western foreign investors, although help from communist China was acceptable.
Then the majority of farmers in the valley were small-scale tribal farmers – about 64,000 or thereabouts. The foreigners, meanwhile, came and went. Over and over again foreign dreams – a sugar plantation, a rice farm, a railway – withered and died in the valley.
But when Nyerere stepped down in 1995, the new government set about opening up to foreign investors once again. Kilombero’s charmed existence was about to come to an end.
In the 1990s, the decade that Shallom and Hinde both arrived in the valley for the first time, the rice and the sugar plantations were already in place, but they were sluggish, half-abandoned, state-propped up enterprises. Parts of the plantations were being used by farmers from the valley, while others were being reclaimed slowly by the forest. Farmers speckled the rest of the valley but mostly it was a little oasis, far away from the 20th century.
“The encroachment started in the mid-1990s when the cattle began moving in,” says Shallom. Tanzania, like other African countries, was experiencing a rapid growth in livestock farming – a profitable, moveable way to store capital at a time when demand for meat, both on the continent and in the rest of the world, was beginning to explode. Pastoralist tribes in Tanzania – particularly the Sukuma – began to move into the valley in ever larger numbers, bringing large herds of their distinctive long-horned cattle.
A teak plantation followed, funded by British aid money from the Commonwealth Development Corporation (now known as CDC). Over the next few years it would take over 28,000 hectares (69,189 acres) of land and become the largest teak farm in Africa.
In 1998, the Tanzanian government sold the sugar plantation to Illovo, Africa’s biggest sugar company, now owned by the mega-corp Associated British Foods which continued with a trial outgrower programme, whereby small farmers are contracted to provide the plantation owners with their produce. There were already farmers moving into the area, but the introduction of the outgrower system, with its guarantee of pre-agreed income and support would accelerate this in-migration. The model caught on quickly and by 2002 there were about3,300 outgrowers; by 2006 that number had swollen to nearly 6,000.
Finally, buyers were found for the rice plantation; another international consortium involving Agrica, another British-based company. This, too, began an outgrower programme which was as popular as the one up the valley. Within a few years the rice plantation had at least 480 outgrowers.
The Tanzanian government was supportive of the plantations’ growth and appeared to be supportive of the investors (although there would be clashes too). In 2009 the government announced its own initiative – Kilimo Kwanza or “Agriculture First” – to prioritise the transformation and growth of the country’s agricultural sector.
And in 2010, the then Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete went to the World Economic Forum to pitch for investment, positing a new model for sustainable agricultural development based on the Kilombero outgrower model; clusters of agribusiness which incorporated small-scale farmers. Sagcot – the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania – was born and the investors loved it. USAid promised $2m on the spot.
Aid money and international funds came rolling in. A bewildering network of initiatives and partnerships between business and the international sector (Feed the Future, the New Alliance, the New Vision for Agriculture initiative, the Grow Africa partnership) was either setting up or already in place and focusing on Africa, and Tanzania and Kilombero were perfect candidates. British and Norwegian aid money went to the rice plantation. World Bank money went to the teak plantation. USAid came in to rehabilitate roads, build bridges and generally slosh cash around. Thanks to the west, thanks to aid, it was boomtime in the valley.
The population, meanwhile, grew rapidly. All you needed to do to set up a farm, after all, was to get permission from the local village and pay them a small fee, and then clear an area and get cracking. Nearby were ready-made markets for your produce. The valley was beautiful, the land welcoming and fertile. It is hardly surprising that between 1964 and 2015 the valley’s population rose from 56,000 to more than half a million.
But as more and more people arrived, the wildlife population shrank. “We tried to get people interested,” says Shallom. “For years we shouted and screamed and did everything we could to get someone to pay attention. We suggested that the valley should be aggregated into the Selous reserve. We talked to the newspapers, to local government officials, to everyone we could get hold of. But no one was interested.”
The valley was being radically transformed. The miombo forest, the open plains, were disappearing as the small farms and the big farms encroached. Every day more of the valley floor was covered with miles of sugar and rice plantation, or with the monocultural teak forests.
The difference is startling. Miombo forest is a mixture of high trees, evergreens, shrubs, flowers, creepers and undergrowth. You can actually hear the density of life here; the low throb of bees, a whine of other insects, the calls of the doves and shrikes.
Teak plantations are entirely different. The trees are slender, elegant, reaching up to 150ft when mature. The leaves are huge, simple, obtuse in shape with undivided blades; they are thick and slightly sandpapery to the touch. “When they fall on the ground,” Hinde says, “they kill undergrowth. You can’t grow anything beneath teak trees.” The empty ground beneath the trees, which grow in neat and unnerving lines, means that in this forest it is nearly silent. We spot a solitary buffalo spider, and a few butterflies.
“I talked to the teak company about building wildlife corridors,” says Hinde, who monitored the impacts for the conservation NGO Frontier. He had come to the valley as a young scientist, but had given up in frustration. He started his own safari company, Wild Things, hoping to instead spur action by bringing people to see the incredible wildlife. “They did make a number of changes to make the plantations more wildlife friendly,” he told the Observer. These measures included setting aside large areas for conservation and breaking up the teak zones to help out wildlife. “But the corridors they built were too narrow. Villagers would put pitfall traps in them and the elephants would go in feet first and be trapped for their meat and for their ivory.”
Pressure on the wildlife was also coming from the rising human population. “There has been a massive increase in smallholder farming [predominantly rice] and nomadic cattle herding,” says Hans Lemm, chief executive of the Kilombero Valley Teak Company. “Pastoralists have entered the valley in significant numbers since the early 2000s.”
The old tribes in the area would eat fish, according to Father Klimakus Chahali, who grew up in the valley and now runs the mission in the town of Itete. “They didn’t cut down trees.”
Rumours abounded that some of the new arrivals in the valley had a less friendly attitude to wildlife, and were killing the lions to protect their livestock. “One year,” says Shallom, “I found 22 lion carcasses. They were poisoning them with pesticides.” Bushmeat consumption and poaching rose too: “We knew there were cartels operating in the valley but again no one wanted to know.”
Other conservationists tried to sound the alarm along with Hinde and Shallom. Trevor Jones of the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (Step) was one of the most effective; his 2007 map of the wildlife corridors in the valley, along with his warnings that they would shortly be shut, made it into a number of environmental assessments, including USAid’s. “It has been very sad to see all the overgrazing and conversion to farmland of wildlife habitat in the Kilombero valley over the last decade,” says Jones.
Anna Estes, a conservationist working in the north of the country, says: “The main threat to elephants overall is not big agriculture, but unofficial development from subsistence farmers. Eighty per cent of farming in Tanzania is small-scale subsistence farming. Because it is unplanned, this causes a lot of damage to elephant habitat. Aside from the immediate threat from poaching, habitat loss is the number one threat to elephants these days, and human-elephant conflict is an extension of that.” The outgrower programme – if inadvertently – magnified that effect tenfold.
Today, farms line the road that lies along the west of the valley. A new road is planned that will lead from Ifakara, in the centre, along down the east side beside the Selous. Everywhere you look there are blackened stumps and cleared land, marking the creation of new farms. Forests that were here a year ago have disappeared and farms have sprung up in their place.
In a cafe in one village, we are told most the customers here have arrived in the last few years; the man in charge only moved here two years ago. Has he ever seen or heard of elephants in the area? He shakes his head. No.
So how did government and aid money end up being used to help fund the destruction of a wildlife haven?
“I work more and more with the World Bank or the African Development Bank,” says scientist Holly Dublin, “and I see what their plans are and what they are giving loans for to these governments. It is like there’s a total disconnect. So what you are going to see is that of course, elephants come last. In fact, anything to do with wildlife comes last.”
It wasn’t that the big donors were unaware of the risks. The World Bank did 320 pages of assessment on Sagcot with a case study on Kilombero. It highlighted the “high risk from accelerated agribusiness investment”, noting possible “increasing pressure on the forests and their biodiversity”. “There was some discontent at the World Bank around the project,” says Doug Hertzler of ActionAid, who has closely followed the impact of the Tanzanian agricultural plans. “For a long time the funding was held up because of the concerns.” It hesitated and dragged its feet – but in the end the money went through.
It was a similar story with USAid, which noted in its extensive report that “the Kilombero valley floodplain is of global, national, regional and local importance in terms of its ecology and biodiversity” and added that “the most important direct threat to biodiversity comes in the form of the conversion, loss, degradation and fragmentation of natural ecosystems”. But it went in nonetheless, and its work can be seen all over the valley – including the rehabilitation of a road that runs straight through the heart of the Ruipa wildlife corridor and which will, undoubtedly bring more traffic.
A USAid spokesperson at the US embassy in Dar es Salaam said it was working to help Tanzania improve its environmental performance. Asked if economic development was incompatible with that, he said: “It is a problem and we’re very conscious of it. When we’re looking at doing a project we’re looking for that balance between environmental issues and sustainable living. It’s a juggling act and we’re always looking for new ideas.”
UK money went into the valley too, in the form of a grant to the rice plantation and support for Sagcot (London had also been a key funder of the teak plantation). In a statement the Department for International Development told the Observer: “DfID’s support to developing agriculture in Tanzania is vital for maintaining a stable supply of food, creating jobs and improving prosperity for hundreds of thousands of households.
“All our agriculture programmes are environmentally sustainable, and protect wildlife and biodiversity, while helping the poorest people lift themselves and their families out of poverty for good.” But the statement also pointed out that “trade and job creation are the means through which developing countries will become self-sufficient, eliminate poverty and hunger, and end their dependency on aid to help Tanzania stand on its own two feet”.
“I don’t know that development banks can be blamed for not taking into account wildlife,” says Dublin. “They take into account the health needs, the food needs, the water needs. So the fact that they have done their land-use planning – and the government and the guys who have responsibility for wildlife have not stepped up to the plate – you have to be careful how you tell that story. When a development agency gives a loan to expand a food project, that is what they are supposed to be doing. That is their job.”
The companies in the valley all worry about this too and have all employed their own techniques to try to stem the wildlife losses.
The rice plantation has run education courses on modern techniques to help local people grow more rice in a smaller area; the teak plantation, in some places, has alternated teak and miombo forests to try to give the wildlife some space. The sugar plantation is trying to build up a forest area in the north of the valley, where elephants are still sometimes seen, so that the elephants will continue to pass that way without stumbling into the plantations (using elephants’ fear of bees, a beehive fence has been strung up).
But the companies agree that the problem is just getting worse. As Lemm says: “We have seen a significant reduction in wildlife. In particular large mammals and the various wildlife corridors that we are part of are under severe pressure.”
The Tanzanian government has other priorities. Growth is prioritised over biodiversity. Nyerere once said: “I personally am not very interested in animals. I do not want to spend holidays watching crocodiles. Nevertheless, I am entirely in favour of their survival.”
Kaddu Sebunya, head of the African Wildlife Foundation, said: “I talk to heads of state about this all the time. One president said to me: ‘I’ve never had a voter ask me for more elephants or more natural parks.’ They want hospitals, education. That’s what keeps him awake at night.”
Scientists are warning that a mass species extinction is already under way. Agriculture is one of the most serious threats to the planet’s biodiversity, and the demand for food and agricultural land is only going to increase. In Kilombero valley the World Bank predicts that “the demand for agricultural land will almost double in the coming 20 years, with a large increase for rice and maize and a smaller increase for sugarcane”.
Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that an extra 1.2 million hectares of land will be needed for agriculture by 2050. “Much of the suitable land not yet in use is concentrated in a few countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa,” it says in its report. It makes no reference to biodiversity, but mentions that “part of the land is forested, protected or subject to expanding urban settlements”.
“We have to be pragmatic, and agree to lose something,” says Sebunya. The AWF tries to explain to governments and businesses that they need to esure they have an ecosystem that functions. “If you want to continue getting water for agriculture, you need to maintain a landscape that produces rain. But the truth is that we can’t have it all. Africa is going to lose wildlife. We are going to have to negotiate. We are going to have to lose a few elephants.”
Conservationists in Tanzania are working on dozens of initiatives to improve, or at least slow the decline in the biodiversity of Kilombero valley.
Shallom is less sanguine. After years of battling with the state, he has shut down his hunting lodge and left the valley. For a while he just gave it all up and let his business fall away; he admits that for the past few years he has struggled. Now he has two new concessions in the Selous; for the first time in the conversation his face lights up as he talks about building up the wildlife there. But the happiness disappears when we go back to the subject of the valley.
“I’ve seen Kilombero from its best to its worst,” he says. “To me it is a closed chapter, a very bitter pill I have had to swallow. Kilombero is done now. It’s over.”
ANIMALS, PLANTS AND PEOPLE
Size The Kilombero valley covers 665,000 hectares, an area around three times the size of the Lake District national park.
Control The valley is a protected Game Controlled Area – hunting is restricted without a licence, but there are no other restrictions on human settlement and livestock grazing.
Population Records showed 321,611 people living in the Kilombero district in 2002. The figure rose to an estimated 500,000 in 2015.
Plantations The Kilombero Valley Teak Company manages 28,000 hectares, of which around 8,100 are planted.
Livestock There are around 100,000 to 200,000 cattle grazing in the valley.
Wildlife habitat The valley is home to buffalo, baboon, bushpig, crocodile, eland, elephant, hartebeest, puku antelope, reedbuck, sable, waterbuck, weaver bird and zebra.
Wildlife at risk The valley is a significant migration route for elephants and other large mammals. The elephant population in the adjacent Selous game reserve dropped from 45,000 in 2009 to 15,000 in 2014, according to Tanzanian government data. The authorities in Tanzania seized 32.9 tonnes of ivory tusks between 2008 and 2013.