photoJust after nightfall, the crack of gunfire echoed across the plains. A hunt and chase ensued in the darkness. Somewhere, another elephant died for its tusks.

In a sad stroke of irony, poachers slaughtered a massive bull elephant near Esilalei Village on October 14, the same day of the momentous Elephant March in Arusha, a protest of hundreds of people calling for, among other demands, an end to the international trade in ivory and rhino horn and stricter laws against poaching in Tanzania.

Fortunately, not everyone had gone home from work that early evening. Rangers stationed at the nearby Manyara Ranch, a community-based conservancy as managed by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), always remain on call. Community informants immediately phoned the team when they heard the gunshot from deep within the Lesimingori Mountains in the northern stretch of the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem. Time to get in the Land Rover and go.

Within a half hour, five rangers had arrived at the base of the mountains and had no choice but to pursue the case on foot and trek into the hills.

Soon thereafter, rangers from Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) and the Wildlife Division’s anti-poaching unit (KDU) joined the operation. But in the dark of night, they could find little among the forested hills of Lesimingori. The Manyara Ranch crew pitched a makeshift mountainside camp and rested underneath the half moon. Some kept guard and did not sleep at all.

By 5:00am, long before dawn, the pursuit resumed and the community members who had heard the gunshots in the first place even joined the search. After a short hike, the rangers spotted the dark shadow of a hulking figure, appearing like a rock in the distance — the fresh carcass of a bull elephant.

Due to the rapid reaction of the Manyara Ranch team the previous night, the poachers didn’t even have time to remove the tusks. They most likely fled when they heard the roar of the Land Rover closing down on them.

The elephant met his end via a single bullet behind the ear fired by a seemingly veteran and well trained poacher. He had been a big old bull, about 45 years of age, whose tusks measured about 1.7 meters (5 feet, 7 inches) long and weighed an estimated 60 kilograms (132 pounds). Those colossal incisors, and the frenzied greed they inspire, formed the motive behind the bull’s death.


A local elephant researcher immediately identified the pachyderm, as he had fitted him with radio collar and followed his movements from 2008 to 2010, labeling the elephant as ID T19. Even members of the joint ranger team recognized the bull as being a regular resident in Tarangire National Park and its surroundings. Now no more.

For other anti-poaching operations, that might have been the end of the story. Criminals escaped. Scene investigated. Report written and filed away. But that’s not how it went down this time.

For one, the Manyara Ranch rangers remained at the scene to ensure that it could not be contaminated until the TANAPA and KDU teams among others returned to join them. That’s when they called in the dogs, or, more specifically, the Big Life Tracker Dog Unit, a special team of canines and their handlers headquartered in Manyara Ranch and also in West Kilimanjaro, as supported by Big Life Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

Enter Rocky and his new sidekick, Rosdas. It didn’t take long before the German shepherd mixed breeds picked up the human scents from footprints near the elephant’s carcass. It seemed multiple people had been there the previous night before the rangers had given chase. A new kind of hunt had begun.

For the rest of the day, the dogs followed the scent trail through the Lesimingori foothills and over the scrublands. First Rocky took the lead but eventually tired after the dogged, relentless pursuit wore on for more than five hours. His backup came to the rescue.

This had been the first time Rosdas had joined a Big Life Tracker Dog operation.  A new addition to the unit, the reddish brown working dog had received extensive training earlier in the year at Canine Specialist Services International in Usa River. Rosdas did not disappoint his master.

The scent led to the main highway heading to the town of Mto wa Mbu, but they picked it up again and it went straight to the home of a local resident. The individual later admitted that two men had come to the home in the middle of the night requesting their cell phones to be charged. Intel given by the individual led to the capture of the two suspects.


At this time, additional information cannot be released, as it could jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

Already, though, the operation has shown how a number of committed groups, TANAPA, KDU, NGOs, and communities, can work together and combine their expertise and manpower to produce results.

Let us just hope that hard evidence will be uncovered this time and poachers will be charged and convicted. You can also rest assured that when duty calls some rangers never rest.

Honeyguide Foundation manages AWF’s Manyara Ranch ranger team and the Big Life Foundation Tracker Dog Unit.