Elephant poaching has dramatically decreased in Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve, once an epicentre of the illegal trade.

From 2009 to 2014, Mozambique lost nearly half of its elephants to poaching; the elephant population declined from an estimated 20 000 to 10 300.1 The majority of this loss occurred in the Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique, where the population fell from an estimated 12 000 in 2011 to around 4 440 animals in 2014. Despite the significantly lower density of elephants in Niassa Reserve, the poaching continued into 2017 and early 2018.2 However, in May 2019, Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC) announced that it had been a year since a poached elephant had last been found in the reserve.3 Later in 2019, ANAC released the results of the 2018 national elephant census, revealing a stabilization of the national population, with an estimated 9 122 animals,4 although losses are still occurring in key populations in the west and south-west.5

Niassa Reserve, at 42 300 km2, slightly larger than Switzerland, is one of Africa’s few remaining remote wilderness areas where large elephant, lion and wild dog populations still roam. This started changing in 2009, when the rampant elephant poaching under way in Tanzania6 shifted south across the Rovuma River into the northern part of the Niassa Reserve, and affected the whole reserve by 2013–2014 (see Figure 2). By 2014, the poaching had also become increasingly professionalized, carried out by specialized gangs using high-calibre hunting rifles.7

By late 2014, northern Mozambique, and the port of Pemba in particular, had become a significant hub for ivory trafficking.8 Ivory was trafficked from Uganda, and possibly further west, overland and by dhow down the coast from Tanzania to northern Mozambique and then to Asia. By 2016, ivory stockpiles in Mozambique were being raided,9 and poaching of the Niassa Reserve elephants continued, even though the low density of elephants made them hard to find. Before 2014, most ivory from elephants poached in northern Mozambique was moved into Tanzania and exited the African continent from East Africa; but with the shift of trafficking to Pemba and Nacala in northern Mozambique, ivory stolen from stockpiles and poached in the Niassa Reserve began moving directly from Mozambique.

Elephant carcass distribution in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique during a dry-season aerial survey in 2014

Figure 2 Elephant carcass distribution in the Niassa National Reserve, Mozambique during a dry-season aerial survey in 2014

National Administration of Conservation Areas, Mozambique

Estimated number of elephant carcasses and margin of error

Figure 3 Estimated number of elephant carcasses and margin of error

Note: Estimating the count of elephant carcasses across a vast terrain, such as the Niassa National Reserve, faces a number of practical barriers, such as the scale of the area and the difficulty of finding carcasses via an aerial count in woodland areas.
Source: National Administration of Conservation Areas, Mozambique

The first actions that contributed to the later reduction in poaching started in 2017 and 2018 (see Figure 3). A key event was the July 2017 arrest and repatriation to Tanzania of a major ivory trafficker who had been operating in northern Mozambique with impunity since 2013.10 The arrest and transfer were the result of a three-year investigation involving a multi-agency collaboration between ANAC, the National Criminal Investigation Service of the Police, and the Attorney General’s Office, with NGO and donor support. In 2014, this trafficker had been operating five poaching gangs in the Niassa Reserve. Just two of the gangs had together supplied him with 825 kilogrammes that year alone. There is also evidence tying him to the theft of 867 pieces of ivory from a stockpile in northern Mozambique in late 2016. He was well known for maintaining a local network of bribery payments to maintain his anonymity and security – making his arrest and repatriation even more notable.

Following this arrest, and based on information gained from interrogations, a further six ivory traffickers operating on the eastern side of the Niassa Reserve were arrested and convicted in court in the province of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique.11 At the same time, higher-level networks trafficking ivory from the ports of northern Mozambique were being exposed, and in some cases dismantled and individuals arrested.12 Recent fieldwork in Pemba, Mozambique, by a Global Initiative team found no indication of ivory being trafficked through that port.13 Other sources in the area have indicated that the local ivory trade has ceased because the perceived threat of arrest and conviction is high.14 The same sources suggested that local ivory traders are holding small stockpiles from the past but are too afraid to move or sell them.

In early 2018, changes were also made on the ground in the Niassa Reserve. Key partners – ANAC, the police, the Wildlife Conservation Society (ANAC’s co-management partner for the Reserve), the Niassa Conservation Alliance and other operators – began to implement a coordinated anti-poaching strategy. This included deploying a specialized rapid-response police unit, appointing a senior police liaison officer to coordinate all police forces with Reserve scouts, better equipping the scouts, making a light aircraft available year-round, and chartering a helicopter during the 2018 and 2019 wet seasons. Improvements in communications were also made through investment in a radio network and regular meetings between the partners. In addition, the partnership cleared out illegal mining and fishing camps in the reserve. Finally, a significant proportion of the ele­phant population were collared and tracked in order to focus protection activities. In the first 12 months that the police rapid-response unit operated in the reserve, they arrested 46 people, of whom 26 were convicted.15

During the poaching crisis, Mozambique lost almost 10 000 elephants – including this one from the Niassa National Reserve – in just five years. A combined effort of law enforcement and park management has helped bring poaching in the reserve down to nothing today.

During the poaching crisis, Mozambique lost almost 10 000 elephants – including this one from the Niassa National Reserve – in just five years. A combined effort of law enforcement and park management has helped bring poaching in the reserve down to nothing today.

© Alastair Nelson

A final key component of the reduction in elephant poaching in Niassa Reserve has been high-level political support. In November 2018, Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, visited the reserve and participated in a widely publicized elephant-collaring operation.16 He used this opportunity to emphasize the need to restore the rule of law, while also reducing resource conflicts with local people.17

It is unlikely that the decline in elephant poaching in the Niassa Reserve is purely the result of effective anti-poaching operations and increased sentencing. Our recent fieldwork ascertained that while ivory from the Niassa Reserve was not for sale, live pangolins are, and local sources confirm that pangolin scales and lion bones originating from the reserve still transit Pemba and can be sourced if wanted. It is not surprising that anti-poaching operations alone in an area the size of the Niassa Reserve have not stopped illegal wildlife trade across the board. Further, there is evidence that sentence length alone is not a good deterrent, but rather the likelihood of being caught and a sanction occurring have a higher impact on deterrence.18 This may be exacerbated in Mozambique where prison overcrowding means that prisoners are fairly regularly released early to make space for new offenders. Therefore, while effective anti-poaching operations and effective sentencing are key components of improving the rule of law in and around protected areas, there may be several other key factors that are critical to reducing organized high-value poaching. In this instance, key specific factors include:

At the same time, the wider context of the breakdown of the rule of law in northern Mozambique due to ongoing violence, and other ongoing illicit trades in the region, must be borne in mind. The specific successes described here should be attributed to improved rule of law that focused on a specific product – ivory. This has overcome a culture of impunity and created a feeling of vulnerability in the criminal networks dealing with that product.


  1. Mozambique announces major decline in national elephant population, Wildlife Conservation Society, 26 May 2015, https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/6760/Govt-of-Mozambique-announces-major-decline-in-national-elephant-population.aspx

  2. Jon Sharman, Poachers kill nearly 11,000 Mozambique elephants in 7 years, Independent, 12 February 2018, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/elephants-poachers-kill-animals-ivory-trade-africa-niassa-national-reserve-fauna-flora-a8206626.html

  3. Niassa Reserve celebrates one year without a single elephant poached – Mozambique, Club of Mozambique, 28 May 2019, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/niassa-reserve-celebrates-one-year-without-a-single-elephant-poached-mozambique/

  4. Mozambique: Only 26 elephants killed in 2019, one less than year before, Club of Mozambique, 27 January 2020, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/number-of-elephants-in-mozambique-stabilises-at-10800-139795/

  5. Interview with Carlos Lopes Pereira, Director of Law Enforcement and Protection, ANAC, Mozambique, 11 April 2019, Maputo. 

  6. Tanzania’s elephant killing fields, Mail & Guardian, 12 August 2013, https://mg.co.za/article/2013-08-12-tanzanias-elephant-killing-fields/

  7. Six elephant poachers arrested in Niassa National Reserve, Wildlife Conservation Society, 8 September 2014, https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/5679/Six-Elephant-Poachers-Arrested-in-Niassa-National-Reserve.aspx; Two ivory poachers arrested near elephant stronghold in Mozambique, Wildlife Conservation Society, 29 September 2014, https://programs.wcs.org/newsroom/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/5876/categoryId/200/Two-Ivory-Poachers-Arrested-Near-Elephant-Stronghold-in-Mozambique.aspx

  8. Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Risk Bulletin of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa, Issue 3, December 2019–January 2020, https://globalinitiative.net/esaobs-risk-bulletin-3/

  9. Club of Mozambique, Tusks seized in port were from Mozambican elephants, 4 May 2018, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/tusks-seized-in-port-were-from-mozambican-elephants-aim-report/; Environmental Investigations Agency, Mozambique Country Report – National Ivory Action Plans, https://reports.eia-international.org/niap/niap-country-mozambique/

  10. Ivory kingpin arrested in Mozambique, Wildlife Conservation Society, 27 July 2017, https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/10414/Ivory-Kingpin-Arrested-in-Mozambique.aspx

  11. Mozambican authorities arrest poachers in Niassa Reserve, including six Tanzanians, Club of Mozambique, 19 September 2017, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/mozambican-authorities-arrest-poachers-in-niassa-reserve-including-six-tanzanians/; Keith Somerville, Mozambique – ivory smuggler sentenced to 14 years in jail, Africa Sustainable Conservation News, 23 April 2019, https://africasustainableconservation.com/2019/04/23/mozambique-ivory-smuggler-sentenced-to-14-years-in-jail/; interview with Carlos Lopes Pereira, Director of Law Enforcement and Protection, ANAC, Mozambique, 18 June 2019, by phone. 

  12. Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Officials seize nearly 300 pieces of illegal ivory, Phnom Penh Post, 6 December 2017, www.phnompenhpost.com/national/officials-seize-nearly-300-pieces-illegal-ivory; Busted! China customs dismantles major ivory trafficking syndicate, Environmental Investigation Agency, 11 January 2019, https://eia-international.org/news/busted-china-customs-dismantles-major-ivory-trafficking-syndicate/

  13. Fieldwork conducted in Pemba in December 2019. 

  14. Interview with local investigator, 16 December 2019, Pemba, Mozambique. 

  15. Interview with Carlos Lopes Pereira, Director of Law Enforcement and Protection, ANAC, Mozambique, 18 June 2019, by phone. 

  16. President Nyusi visits Niassa Reserve, Club of Mozambique, 5 November 2018, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/president-nyusi-visits-niassa-reserve-pics/

  17. Nyusi discusses anti-poaching measures, Club of Mozambique, 6 November 2018, https://clubofmozambique.com/news/nysui-discusses-anti-poaching-measures-aim-report/

  18. Justin T. Pickett, Using behavioral economics to advance deterrence research and improve crime policy: Some illustrative experiments, Crime and Delinquency, 21 March 2018, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0011128718763136; Cook, Behavioral science critique of HOPE, Criminology & Public Policy, 11 November 2016, https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9133.12256