Tanzania’s anti-poaching laws: Human toll and consequences

In a mud-walled shack, Maria Ngoda sits with her head bowed, her face etched with sorrow.

This wasn’t the life she imagined after her husband’s death, when she vowed to uphold her family’s honor. Yet a single act of kindness led to four months behind bars.

Ngoda, a fish vendor, was on Nov. 11, 2023 sentenced to 22 years in prison after allegedly being found with 12 pieces of antelope meat.

Her ordeal began on a seemingly ordinary day as she scaled and cleaned fish at home. A friend asked her to look after a sealed plastic bucket for a few hours.

“I didn’t know I was walking into a trap,” Ngoda says.

Hours later, police raided Ngoda’s home, discovering that the bucket contained illegal antelope meat, a serious offense in Tanzania. Despite her pleas of innocence, Ngoda was arrested and detained.

“I told them I didn’t know what was in the bucket, but they wouldn’t listen. They just took me away,” she says.

For four months, Ngoda languished in jail while waiting for trial, her spirit slowly eroding.

“The prison conditions were bad. I missed my children terribly,” she says.

Ngoda’s children, left to fend for themselves, suffered in her absence.

“We didn’t know what to do,” says her eldest daughter, Amina. “We prayed every night for mama’s return.”

The courtroom verdict was a moment of disbelief. Ngoda, known for her hard work and honesty, was found guilty.

“It felt like a nightmare. I thought, how could this possibly happen to me?”

Ngoda’s verdict sparked outrage in the local community, with neighbors rallying to her defense.

“Maria is a good woman,” says neighbor Juma Kileo, a local farmer. “She’s been wronged. We all know she would never do such a thing.”

Legal experts and human rights campaigners have also taken up her cause, arguing that the case highlights flaws in the judicial system.

“This is a clear miscarriage of justice,” says William Mtwazi, a legal officer at the Legal and Human Rights Centre, an advocacy group. “Maria’s only crime was being too trusting,” he says.

Ngoda’s lawyers appealed, and she was subsequently acquitted on Feb. 23, 2024. Upon her return home, she found her house stripped of its belongings and her children scattered.

“My second daughter went to Dar es Salaam to find work as a housemaid because nobody took care of her in my absence,” she says.

Across Tanzania, efforts to combat poaching and protect biodiversity through stricter anti-poaching laws have had unintended, devastating consequences for women. Many have found themselves wrongfully trapped by the justice system, a predicament that has profoundly disrupted their livelihoods.

Struggle for survival

Neema Kajuna, a 34-year-old mother of three, lives in Kikwa village on the edge of Serengeti National Park.

“Before the anti-poaching laws tightened, my husband could sometimes earn money by guiding tourists or helping with legal hunting. Now the crackdown has left us with fewer options,” she complains.

Kajuna’s daughter had to drop out of school because her parents couldn’t afford the fees anymore.

Jane Atieno, a young widow, tells of the mysterious disappearance of her husband.

“He was arrested on suspicion of poaching and never returned. I assume he’s dead,” she says.

“The laws are there to protect the animals, but who is there to protect us?”

Since then, Atieno has become a passionate advocate for equitable enforcement of these regulations.

“We need to find a balance,” she says. “Protect the wildlife, yes, but also support the communities who coexist with them.”

Richard Mbeki, a renowned wildlife conservationist, acknowledges the complexities.

“Anti-poaching laws are vital for the survival of many species on the brink of extinction,” he explains. “However, they must be enforced with an understanding of the socio-economic realities faced by local communities.”

Mbeki suggests that involving local communities in conservation efforts and providing them with sustainable livelihoods could be a game-changer.

“When people see tangible benefits from wildlife conservation, they become its staunchest defenders.”

Call for balance

Poaching poses a serious threat to wildlife globally, driven by illegal trade in animal parts and exacerbated by poverty. Governments worldwide have ramped up efforts to combat this menace, implementing strict anti-poaching laws and funding ranger patrols.

However, these measures often come at a cost to local populations. Communities living near protected areas frequently rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. Stricter laws can limit their access, leading to unintended socio-economic hardships.

To address these challenges, some NGOs are pioneering community-based conservation projects aiming to empower local people, particularly women, through alternative income-generating activities such as eco-tourism, sustainable farming and crafts.

“We love our land and its animals,” says Ngoda. “We just need the chance to live and enjoy alongside wildlife.”

These communities have traditionally relied on the parks’ resources for sustenance, medicine and cultural practices.

But with stringent anti-poaching regulations, many find themselves in precarious situations. Accused of poaching when merely gathering firewood or medicinal plants, these individuals face harsh penalties that disrupt their way of life and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Women, often the primary caretakers of their families, are particularly affected.

Authorities are aware of these plights. Babati District Game Officer Christopher Laizer spearheads educational campaigns, stressing the illegal nature of bush meat and wildlife trophies.

“We inform women that they could lose their assets if they are involved in poaching,” Laizer says.

The Wildlife Conservation Act of 2022 mandates severe penalties for those found with government trophies.

Poaching isn’t just a wildlife crisis; it’s a socio-economic catastrophe.

Benson Mwaise, an official from the Burunge Wildlife Management Authority, explains: “Poaching isn’t exclusive to men; women are involved too because they often cook the meat. We investigate to understand women’s roles in these activities.”

The Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA) notes that men involved in poaching often flee, leaving women to face the consequences.

“I wish I knew what was in that bucket, but it’s too late now,” Ngoda says. ​​​​​​

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