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Zimbabwe’s government is standing by as its wildlife is slaughtered

Zimbabwe’s government is standing by as its wildlife is slaughtered

By  | August 26, 2016

Zimbabwe has also experienced a worrying rise in poaching. In 2014, 20 rhinos were killed; in 2015, the figure was 51.

Source: Zimbabwe’s government is standing by as its wildlife is slaughtered | Julian Rademeyer | World news | The Guardian 25 August 2016

It was a normal day in the Chipinge Safari area when two police officers, Robert Shumba and Vengai Mazhara, headed into the bush in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands after getting a tip about a poacher armed with an AK-47.

They were soon dead, shot by an unknown man who escaped the scene.

A month later, the police arrested a man alleged to have supplied the AK-47 used in the killings, 36-year-old Munashe Mugwira, an operative at the state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).

Mugwira was detained after another suspected poacher was arrested. According to the local press, the suspect told police that Mugwira had supplied him and four others with AK-47s and .303 hunting rifles to “kill rhinos”. The man, Jason Chisango, also accused Mugwira of poisoning elephants with cyanide.

The accusations against a government agent point to a worrying trend in Zimbabwe: the involvement of the state’s security apparatus in rhino horn smuggling and supplying weapons to elephant and rhino poachers.

Mugwira – who has denied the charges – is now facing trial, and while Zimbabwe does have stringent legislation to protect its fauna and flora, the application of these laws has so far been disastrously uneven.

In December 2015, for example, Tavengwa Machona – one of Mugwira’s co-accused and a man accused by the prosecution of being involved in “decades of poaching activity” – was found guilty in a separate trial of killing two rhinos and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

However, the court promised to commute the sentence by 15 years if he paid $480,000 – the estimated value of the rhinos – to the park where they were killed. It is unclear whether he has paid the fee.

‘Things are getting worse’

The extent of the allegations against Mugwira are wide-ranging and extreme, but there are concerns that the involvement of the CIO in poaching appears to extend beyond a few rogue agents.

One conservationist, who spoke to the Global Initiative Against Organised Crime on the condition of anonymity, said that corrupt game scouts and poachers were regularly trading horns and tusks with CIO operatives.

Over the past decade, more than 6,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers across several African states, and things are getting worse. In the early stages of the crisis in 2008, 262 rhinos were killed. By 2015, that number had risen more than fivefold to 1,377, according to the African Rhino Specialist Group.

South Africa, which is home to 79% of the continent’s remaining rhinos, has borne the brunt of the killings, but Zimbabwe has also experienced a worrying rise in poaching. In 2014, 20 rhinos were killed; in 2015, the figure was 51.

The upsurge in poaching in Zimbabwe has complex roots including continuing political instability, a foundering economy, and widespread corruption. The ruling Zanu-PF’s party policies have also exacerbated the issue.

As part of their “fast-track” land reform programme, the government encouraged local subsistence farmers to invade wildlife conservancies where rhino populations were being protected and rebuilt.

In 2011, senior officials and military officers also seized key properties and land in the Savé Valley , an area once heralded as one of the world’s most notable conservation success stories. Ministers and local provincial leaders were controversially granted 25-year leases on the properties, justified on the basis of “wildlife-based land reform” measures to empower indigenous black Zimbabweans.

Beyond land reforms, cyanide, which is widely used in Zimbabwe’s mining industry, is relatively easy to obtain in the country and has also been used repeatedly by poachers.

In 2013 at least 300 elephants died after waterholes and salt-licks were purposefully poisoned with cyanide in what was described as “the largest massacre of elephant in this part of the world for the last 25 years”. In October 2015, at least 62 elephants were reported to have been poisoned with cyanide-laced oranges in the Hwange National Park.

With the right leadership, Zimbabwe’s wildlife could be used to reinvigorate community ownership, and the nationwide resource that has been pillaged for the profit by the central state could be protected.

But given the depth of problem it seems this change of direction will require a fresh government. This may come about sooner rather than later given the political challenges president Robert Mugabe is currently facing.

But the increasingly endangered rhino species does not have time on its side. While a few groups continue to profit massively, the onslaught on wildlife and the environment in Zimbabwe is only getting worse.

A version of this article originally appeared in “Tipping Point – Transnational organised crime and the ‘war’ on poaching”, by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, and African Arguments

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