By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania on Wednesday rejected findings by conservationists who said elephants could disappear from a reserve there within six years due to "industrial scale" poaching, saying the WWF analysis was outdated.
WWF said Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania’s largest protected area, was home to one of the greatest concentrations of African elephants on the continent, but rampant ivory poaching has seen the population reduced by 90 percent in less than 40 years.
"Nearly 110,000 elephants once roamed the savannahs, wetlands and forests of Selous, but now only about 15,000 remain in the ecosystem," the conservation group said on Wednesday.
"Based on historic trends of elephant poaching, by early 2022 we could see the last of Selous' elephants gunned down by heavily armed and well trained criminal networks that have turned poaching into an industrial scale global threat to conservation," the analysis said.
The analysis, carried out for WWF by global development advisers Dalberg, said the loss of elephants at the reserve put the livelihoods of 1.2 million people at risk and hurt Tanzania's economy.
The East African country relies heavily on revenue from safari tourism. Tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner in east Africa's second largest economy.
New President John Magufuli has pledged to root out poaching as part of a wider war on corruption.
The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Gaudence Milanzi, dismissed the WWF findings.
"The report has not taken into account the success of current efforts to curb poaching," Milanzi told Reuters. "There is no industrial scale poaching in the Selous right now, that was something in the past."
Poaching has risen across sub-Saharan Africa, where armed gangs have killed elephants for tusks and rhinos for horns that are often shipped to Asia for use in ornaments and medicines.
Milanzi said Tanzania's anti-poaching efforts over the past two years had recorded major achievements.
"I am sure these projections that elephants could vanish at the Selous by 2022 are based on past events, not the current situation on the ground," he said.
"We haven't completely curbed poaching -- we need to step up our efforts. But elephant populations are actually rising and stabilizing in some parts of the country, although poaching has not been completely eradicated."
Milanzi cited the prosecution of a prominent Chinese businesswoman, Yang Feng Glan, dubbed the "Ivory Queen", as proof of the success of the poaching crackdown.
She is accused of running a network that smuggled out tusks from 350 elephants, charges she denies. She is under police custody and facing trial at a court in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
(Reporting by Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala; Editing by George Obulutsa and Alison Williams)