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In East Africa's wildest park, lions, hippos, and poachers creep in the night

``I could show you half a dozen leopard,'' assured Chris Fox as we bumped along a dirt track following a sand river -- a ``river'' with no water during the dry season. ``There're still a lot around here, but you've got to keep your eyes peeled.'' The terrain was ideal leopard country: rocky outcrops, 1,000-year-old Baobab trees, and woodland thickets. It was also an hour before sunset, the time when the leopard normally emerges to hunt.

Already, groups of zebra, impala, and greater kudu were making their way down to the sand river to drink. It being the dry season, the bed was parched. But through the undergrowth, we could see elephant digging for water with their feet and trunks. Many animals wait for the elephants to quench their thirst and then rush forward to benefit from the holes.

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We drove until we reached our campsite beneath a large fig tree deep inside the Ruaha National Park. But we saw no leopards.

``It's also a matter of luck,'' sighed Chris, a Tanzanian-born Englishman now running the Ruaha River Camp. Its safari-style bandas [huts] overlook the Great Ruaha River, teeming with crocodile and hippo.

We did not feel too badly about not seeing any leopards. Because of Ruaha's relative isolation, the satisfaction of experiencing what is reputed to be East Africa's wildest and least spoiled park was enough. Later, bedded down under the stars, we heard the throaty grunts of a nearby lion. Other animals, including an elephant that gingerly skirted our bedrolls, rummaged in the bush.

With nearly 5,200 square miles of undulating savanna and woodland, Ruaha is Tanzania's second largest national park. It cannot claim the thunderous herds of the Serengeti, but it does have one of the largest varieties of game on the continent: giraffe, waterbuck, and Grant's gazelle, plus the rare cheetah and sable antelope. It also boasts some of the region's richest birdlife -- over 370 recorded species, many not found in the northern parks or in Kenya.

Tragically, Ruaha, as with all of Tanzania's great gameparks and reserves, is being gradually laid waste by man. As we headed back to camp next morning, we passed the bleached remains of an elephant, its tusks hacked off. We also counted at least six bushfires on the horizon. ``Poachers,'' said Chris. ``It's getting worse the whole time.''

According to conservationists, including the Nairobi-based regional office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, poaching in Tanzania has reached staggering proportions over the past two or three years.

In the early days, poaching took place on a minor scale. Usually local farmers hunting with bows and arrows or old muzzleloaders for meat, a practice generally tolerated by wildlife authorities.

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But poaching has since become big business, particularly for ivory, rhino horns, and game trophies. ``It has turned into a mass slaughter. It has got completely out of hand with the government incapable or unwilling to do anything about it,'' said one conservation source.

``Fifteen years ago, you could still find elephant, rhino, and buffalo right up to the Iringa tobacco farms 40 or 50 miles from the park boundaries,'' noted British teaplanter Alex Boswell, member of the Friends of Ruaha Society, a voluntary organization trying to protect the park. ``Now all you find is the occasional bushbuck or leopard. Everything else has been killed off, with the poachers pushing well into the park.''

Black rhinos, once abundant in the Ruaha, are believed to have been completely wiped out. Six years ago, more than 50 rhino carcasses were found, apparently the result of a highly organized operation. Since then, not a single rhino has been seen. According to observers in Dar es Salaam, there was strong circumstantial evidence pointing to involvement by park authorities at the time.

The same observers also maintain that many poachers today are simply local ``small fry'' hired by businessmen or well-placed government officials. Police recently intercepted a truckload of 382 elephant tusks. ``At a thousand shillings [$65] per kilo [2.2 lbs.], and 18 to 30 kilos per tusk, that's a lot of money,'' said Mr. Kibasa.

The weaponry is highly sophisticated: automatic rifles or submachine guns. Shoot-outs sometimes erupt between poorly equipped park rangers and poachers. Police and military personnel, too, are alleged to enter the wildlife reserves and parks at night, literally machine gunning anything that moves -- for meat or ivory.

Unlike Kenya, hunting is legal in Tanzania. Originally it was permitted only in so-called controlled areas with strict quotas, and at a price. But in recent years, the government has opened up the reserve to obtain more hard currency. But hunters have killed protected species and even ventured into the game parks themselves.

The park authorities, however, are facing an almost impossible dilemma, a fight against time. They lack the funds, manpower, and equipment to even begin cracking down on poaching and fires.

Prices in Tanzania are currently so high as to effectively discourage foreigners from visiting. This denies the parks desperately needed revenue and also reduces the incentive to protect wildlife. Legal deterrents are inadequate: Poachers often face no more than a small fine, or, say some sources, simply buy their way out.

Tanzania is an extremely large but very poor country. At the time of this correspondent's visit, park warden Kibasa, who has since been transferred to another park, had fewer than 50 men, one working Land Rover (out of five), and one radio to police the entire park.

``We have divided Ruaha into three zones and try to patrol the area by foot and by car. I have also tried controlled burning to reduce the damage,'' he explained. ``But what can we do? We have no spare parts, fuel, and barely enough money to pay my men.''

Private organizations are trying to alleviate some of these problems through private funding. But they can only do so much. According to experts here, if Ruaha and other parks are to be saved, the government needs to commit itself to a sound conservation and tourist policy. They also need an effective deployment of well-equipped, properly paid, and committed park rangers.

For the moment, much of the financial burden may have to be assumed by foreign resources.

``Sometimes I throw my hands up in despair!'' says one supporter of the parks. ``We've got to realize that this is not just Tanzania's problem. It's part of our world heritage. If we don't do something fast, we may be witnessing the last chapter.''

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