Tanzania president says poaching boom threatens elephant population

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said his country's elephant herds faced extinction following a wildlife poaching boom in east Africa's second-largest economy. Kikwete said a new census at the Selous-Mikumi ecosystem, one of the country's biggest wildlife sanctuaries, revealed the elephant population had plummeted to just 13,084 from 38,975 in 2009, representing a 66-percent decline. The president announced plans to call for a global ban in the trade of ivory and rhino horn, as a new wave of poaching is threatening its elephant and rhino populations. "There is every sign that this animal (elephant) will become extinct in the near future if deliberate efforts are not taken to protect these herds," Kikwete said in a speech released by his office on Thursday. "If this (ivory and rhino horn) trade is ended, not a single elephant will be killed. There won't be any incentive for poaching." He said elephant slaughter in Tanzania declined sharply after 1987 when the government launched a major anti-poaching operation, which led to an increase in herds from 55,000 in 1989 to 110,000 in 2009. But the poaching has revived in recent years, driven by fast-rising demand for ivory and rhino horn in Asia in tandem with growing Chinese influence and investment in Africa. Kikwete appealed for assistance from the international community in fighting poachers, saying game rangers were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem, with the area of the country's wildlife sanctuaries "nearly the size of the United Kingdom" at 232,535 square kilometers. "We need technical assistance, funding and technology to … enable us to employ more game rangers and to give us modern technology to tackle poachers," he said. In a separate statement released late on Wednesday, the Tanzanian president's office said the country had confiscated close to 20 tons of ivory between 2010 and 2013. "The government is finalizing the employment of 900 more staff for the wildlife division ... However, the government still needs more equipment to match the existing challenges in wildlife conservation," the president's office said. President Kikwete in December sacked four government ministers following accusations of abuses committed by security forces during a huge operation against wildlife poaching. The government said it was now finalizing plans to re-launch the anti-poaching operation. (Reporting by Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala; editing by Drazen Jorgic and Ralph Boulton)