BIG-game hunting is an opaque but lucrative business in Zimbabwe, explaining why the country’s politically connected elite has been scrambling to get safari concessions in wildlife-rich areas which are more profitable than average business entities, particularly in an economy in which companies are crippled by a severe liquidity crunch.
Zimbabwe is among 11 leading countries in big game hunting alongside South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, Cameroon, Republic of Central Africa, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Benin.
In South Africa, the industry is worth more than US$500 million per year, with more than 9 000 foreign hunters visiting the country in 2012, according to a study by the University of the North West quoted by CNBC.
However, in Zimbabwe figures are not readily available, but the country boasts some of the largest numbers of Big Five game such as lions, elephants, buffalos, rhinoceros and leopards — favourites of trophy hunters who are mostly the rich tourists from the United States and European countries.
A price list on the African Hunting Safari Consultants website reveals that a trip costs just under US$50 000 for 10 days spent stalking a majestic big cat like a lion and then blowing it away.
The killing of one of Zimbabwe and Africa’s most famous animals, Cecil the Lion, by American dentist Walter Palmer who paid US$50 000 to conduct the illegal hunt, demonstrates how a single kill can generate a substantial amount of money.
This explains the scramble by political bigwigs, although in Cecil’s case the killing using a bow and arrow was a huge loss to the nation given the lion was a world attraction.
Cecil’s Isis-style brutal killing has caused outrage worldwide, but the sad reality is that many animals suffer the same fate, including on safaris owned by prominent politicians and their cronies, where poaching is rife.
The case has also thrown into question Zimbabwe’s commitment towards animal conservation.
The fact that many individuals can make a killing from illegal hunting and get away with it has resulted in many political heavyweights venturing into wildlife safaris either directly or through proxies.
The First Family has not been left out as President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace has been trying to evict villagers allocated land at Manzou Farm in Mazowe during the land reform programme in 2000, so that she sets up a wildlife conservancy which will have big game including lions, leopards and elephants.
Mashonaland Central Provincial Affairs minister Martin Dinha confirmed the development in January this year. The high profile divorce case between Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantine Chiwenga and his former wife Jocelyn, which exposed the couple’s vast wealth, revealed the Chiwengas also owned a wildlife safari. The couple owned Yolsac Safaris (Pvt) Ltd which trades as Kazungula Wildlife Safaris.
In Beitbridge, safari operator Ian Ferguson has been battling for control of his Denlynian game sanctuary which was reportedly invaded by State Security minister Kembo Mohadi’s young brother, Steven, and some Zanu PF supporters.
Political big-hitters have also been battling to control Save Conservancy, one of the largest and richest private wildlife sanctuaries in the world. The conservancy is owned by a number of local and foreign individuals, some of whom are secured by bilateral investment protection agreements signed by Zimbabwe and their mother countries, but that has not stopped a scramble for the conservancy by the political elite and well connected, most of whom have also benefitted from the land reform programme.
Despite Mugabe accusing politicians and securocrats who invaded the conservancy of being lazy and greedy last year, the bigwigs, among them Masvingo provincial affairs minister Shuvai Mahofa, have stayed put.
Other Zanu PF officials and military elites who have seized land at Save include Lands minister Douglas Mombeshora, Major-General Engelbert Rugeje, Brigadier-General Livingstone Chineka, Lieutenant-Colonel David Moyo, Retired Major-General Gibson Mashingaidze, Retired Colonel Claudius Makova and Assistant Commissioner Connel Dube.
Former higher education minister, the late Stan Mudenge and ex-Masvingo governor Titus Maluleke also have land at the conservancy. The invasion of wildlife conservancies has also resulted in an increase in illegal hunting, and Cecil the Lion’s case is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Zimbabwe has been facing a wildlife conservation crisis for some time.
In 2013 more than 300 elephants were killed by poachers using cyanide poisoning at Hwange National Park, amid reports that some top officials may have supplied villagers with the deadly poison. The government has also been exporting wildlife including elephants and lions to Asia, particularly China, under controversial circumstances. Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chairman Jonny Rodriguez said the killing of animals such as Cecil is destroying the nation’s pride and tourism sector which contributes substantially to the economy’s GDP.
“Our animals are endangered and if we don’t act to stop this as a nation most of our animals will be extinct in the next 15 years. This trophy hunting is destroying our wildlife and for what really? The country does not even benefit huge amounts of money from hunting licence fees as compared to tourism revenues,” said Rodriguez. “We have lost a lion which marketed our country and provided many with treasured memories. Cecil was killed for only US$50 000 and yet he was worth more than a million dollars,” he said.
Thirteen-year-old Cecil was a popular attraction among tourists who visited Hwange National Park. He had a unique black mane and a collar to track his movements for an Oxford University project. The celebrity lion’s death has further highlighted the wildlife management and conservation crisis in Zimbabwe while also highlighting just how vulnerable the African lion is.
Teresa Telecky, a director of the wildlife department of Humane Society International, believes trophy hunting is driving the African lion closer to extinction.
“More than 560 wild lions are killed every year in Africa by international trophy hunters. An overwhelming 62% of trophies from these kills are imported into the US,” she said.