ORGANISED wildlife poaching in Zimbabwe, particularly of elephants and rhinoceros whose tusks and horns are lucrative on the black market, has escalated to disastrous levels after the poisoning of about 90 elephants through cyanide by poachers who seem to be using new and deadlier methods of plunder.
Elephants and rhinos are poached mostly for their tasks and horns. These end up mostly in Asia, particularly China, Thailand and Vietnam where end products are a symbol of wealth while others use them for alternative medicine.
According to a report entitled The African Elephant Crisis produced by the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, organised syndicates ship several tonnes of ivory at a time to markets in Asia, and hundreds of elephants are killed for every container sent.
As a result the elephant population in Central and West Africa may be wiped out soon, although large herds still exist in East and Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, where elephant numbers far exceed the carrying capacity.
“Currently it is likely that the total continental population estimate is in the range of 420 000 to 650 000 African elephants, with just three countries, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe accounting for well over half of these elephants,” reads the report.
“However, these numbers could change rapidly if present trends continue.”
The government says Zimbabwe’s elephant population has swelled to more than 100 000 against a carrying capacity of 40 000. Conservanists however believe the numbers have been exaggerated to justify the selling of ivory.
Zimbabwe has deterrent jail terms for rhino and elephant poachers, but this has not stopped illegal hunting as shown by the Hwange cyanide poisoning incident, which has also caused a serious ecological disaster that will be difficult to manage.
Besides elephants, several animals, among them lions, hyenas, cheetahs and birds, were caught in the cross fire after either drinking from poisoned water bodies or eating the dead elephants.
The consequences of the cyanide poisoning are huge considering Hwange National Park is the biggest wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe. It has more than 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores.
All of Zimbabwe’s specially protected animals are found in the park and it is the only protected area where gemsbok, brown hyena and the endangered African wild dog are found in reasonable numbers.
The incident has resulted in serious questions about the country’s conservation efforts.
On paper Zimbabwe has strong anti-poaching laws and a first offender convicted for unlawfully killing a rhino or elephant is sentenced to nine years or 11 years for second or subsequent offences, as per the amended section 128 of the Parks and Wildlife Act Chapter 20:14.
Three of the eight people arrested in connection with the cyanide attack were on Wednesday sentenced to 16 years each in prison.
Conservationists however believe much more needs to be done to curb poaching, including bringing to book people behind the poaching syndicates.
In the Hwange case, animals died after being poisoned by villagers living in areas bordering the national park.
Cyanide, a deadly chemical capable of killing in minutes depending on the concentration, is a controlled chemical substance and cannot be bought over the counter. It appears the villagers received the cyanide pellets from sources with the capacity to clandestinely access the substance.
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force president Jonny Rodrigues said investigating authorities should look into bigwigs controlling poaching syndicates. They say bigwigs are behind most poachers.
“The big issue is that there are some bigwigs involved in poaching and this should be thoroughly investigated,” said Rodrigues. “You will recall that three years ago some Chinese poisoned elephants in Mana Pools using cyanide.
“We are not happy with what government has been doing to fight poaching. They are escalating this into a crisis after a large number of elephants have been killed, but we want action taken on the greedy and powerful people behind the poaching syndicates.”
Rodrigues also said the disaster could have been avoided had projects such as the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire) remained active.
The programme was first introduced in 1982 to benefit people living near the Gonarezhou National Park.
It allowed the community to reap the benefits of wildlife management for the development of the community, giving them an incentive to protect and see value in the animals on their land and in the National Park.
The community received meat and a percentage of the revenue from commercial hunting on their land, with funds being used to build classrooms, clinics, roads and for the provision of electricity and water.
The project was so successful it was adopted by several countries in Africa, Asia and South America, but along the way Zimbabwe all but dropped the concept resulting in communities detaching themselves from the wildlife, sometimes viewing it as competition for land.
Environment, Water and Climate minister Saviour Kasukuwere has declared “war” on poachers,while trying to improve the campfire model.