Lions, elephants and hippos have vanished from Kilombero valley after UK- and US-funded projects helped turn a once-thriving habitat into farmland, teak, and sugar plantations. In Kilombero Valley the World Bank predicts that “the demand for agricultural land will almost double in the coming 20 years, with a large increase for rice and maize and a smaller increase for sugarcane”.
Ryan Shallom was 16 the first time he saw the Kilombero valley, in 1990. “There were 600 lions in the valley back then,” recalls Shallom, whose family were professional hunters, running trips for tourists and rich Tanzanians. The light tree cover in the valley’s higher ground, the rivers, the abundance of food and water, meant that this was a haven not just for elephants, lions, and buffalos, but for all wildlife: a pocket Eden. “We used to see herds of 100 elephants or more, buffalo in all directions … There was the world’s largest population of puku antelope, about 60,000. I think 75% of the world’s population of puku were in Kilombero.”
But from the mid 90s, the wildlife began to disappear. In 1998, elephant numbers in the valley were over 5,000, according to data collected by the Tanzania WildlifeResearch Institute. Now elephants are rarely seen. The lions have gone too, although there are rumours that there is one male lion left. The puku are vanishing: Shallom estimates their numbers have fallen to just over a thousand. The crocodiles, hippos, and zebra, have all more or less vanished.
“The encroachment started in the mid 90s when the cattle started moving in,” says Shallom. Tanzania, like other African countries, was experiencing a rapid growth in livestock – a profitable, moveable way to store capital at a time when demand for meat, both on the continent and in the rest of the world, was beginning to explode. Pastoralist tribes in Tanzania – particularly the Sukuma – began to move into the valley in ever larger numbers, bringing large herds of their distinctive long-horned cattle.
A teak plantation followed, funded by British aid money in the form of the Commonwealth Development Company (now known as CDC). Over the next few years it would take over 28,000 hectares (69,189 acres), and become the largest teak farm in Africa.