In a climate of political chaos Zimbabwe's wildlife is being exterminated


A jewel in the dust

‘Zimbabwe used to be the jewel of sub-Saharan Africa,’ says Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), which monitors the state of the country’s wildlife, ‘and we used to have some of the world’s most progressive and successful conservation policies. Our private ranches held large numbers of wildlife. We have all the Big Five here – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. Now it is all going.’ Last year, ZCTF produced a disturbing report which showed that more than 90 per cent of animals on Zimbabwe’s private ranches and national parks had been lost to commercial and subsistence poaching since 2000, and an estimated 60 per cent of its total wildlife has been killed off in response to the country’s economic near-meltdown.

According to Rodrigues, shooting wildlife under the guise of harvesting bushmeat (for domestic consumption, but also for export to cities such as London and Paris) or for biltong (dried meat), or because an animal has been declared ‘rogue’, is increasingly serving as cover for the illicit gathering of ivory. ZCTF also has evidence that the government recently sold elephant ivory to China in exchange for military hardware. ‘You’ve also got animals being killed by the government for rations for the army,’ says Rodrigues.

According to the film investigation No Hiding Place (TVE), as much as 10 tonnes of bushmeat may be reaching London every day.

How did this happen?

Subsistence poaching has long been a part of the culture in Zimbabwe. This began to morph into wholesale slaughter in 2000, with the controversial land-redistribution programme of the country’s president, Robert Mugabe. That policy drove white farmers off farms and reserves, and the land was then carved up among the landless poor and political supporters, many of whom had neither the experience or resources to make a living from a land where soil quality is poor and there is little rainfall. In many cases those who took possession burned grazing land and chopped down trees, decimating the natural savannah that characterised many ranches and conservancies. The new settlers killed indiscriminately animals such as antelope, buffalo, elephant, giraffe, leopard, wildebeest and zebra. As land was destroyed and farmers fled the country, supplies of basic commodities such as grain became scarce. Many took to subsistence poaching, as a source of food and income, simply to survive.

Rhinos – easy targets

Rhinos are among the most threatened mammals on the planet. Until 2000, Zimbabwe had the single largest concentration of these unique animals – approximately 500 – numbers having recovered from a critical twodecade decline. In 2004, ZCTF estimated only 200 rhinos remained.

The animals are still being slaughtered for their horns, which are hacked off by poachers – who often leave the animals to die a slow painful death – and sold on the black market, where they can fetch up to $90,000.

Rhinos make easy targets. They are largely solitary and often follow the same trails that elephants do in order to fi nd water. Perimeter game fencing around conservancies is often dismantled and the wire used to produce thousands of wildlife snares to trap bushmeat. Rhinos can become the incidental victims of such traps.

Caught in a snare

Snares are usually made from steel wire, which is extremely abundant in many areas – poachers simply steal it from game or cattle fencing. Where fencing is scarce, poachers have may to steal copper wire from telephone lines, or improvise using other materials.

A poacher using snares will typically set lines of 10 to 30 snares along high-traffic game trails, such as those leading to water. Animals walk through the snare and become captured around the neck, waist or leg. As the animal tries to escape the snare tightens, cutting into the flesh of the animal. An animal caught in such a snare dies either by suffocation or through lack of water.

In areas with lots of fencing, snares can be made cheaply and in vast quantities. They are indiscriminate – virtually every kind of wildlife species can become caught in these traps, from small antelopes, such as duikers, to elephants, which are frequently caught around their trunks, resulting in horrific wounds. Snares are not only cruel, but also a careless way to hunt. If poachers fail to remove their snares or do not check snare lines frequently then wild animals that have become entangled in the lines are left to rot in the trap, the meat wasted.

Operation Meat

After the 2005 elections, President Mugabe, who has continually refused international aid to help ease Zimbabwe’s food crisis, instigated Operation Nyama – Operation Meat – an official slaughter of elephants to provide meat for starving villagers.

These days elephants are also slaughtered to supply food for burgeoning numbers of crocodile farms. Crocodile farming is a lucrative business, with owners earning millions through the sale and export of skins for the manufacture of handbags and shoes, as well as for the sale of the reptiles’ meat. Approximately 100 elephants a year are being slaughtered for this purpose.

‘We also now have a problem with the gene pool,’ says Johnny Rodrigues. ‘The biggest animals are being shot and as a result we are seeing some elephants being born without tusks – those with the biggest tusks have been killed and aren’t able to pass on their genes.’

Elephants have also been recorded migrating in unusually high numbers into neighbouring Zambia to avoid being killed by poachers, marauders and illegal trophy hunters. Naturalists believe the animals understood that it was safer on the other side of the river.

A devastating effect on Zimbabwe’s economy

Hunting- and wildlife-related tourism were once the source of millions of dollars annually for Zimbabwe’s economy. Land that could not sustain farming was ideally suited to photographic and shooting safaris. Now this land is being systematically destroyed. Zimbabwe has near 5,000 per cent inflation.

Political chaos combined with the slaughter of wildlife is also rapidly killing any hope of Zimbabwe reinventing itself as a prime tourist destination. Because of the proliferation of snares, according to Rodrigues, many of the animals on former ranches have been maimed. ‘They [the government] are telling the world they want the tourists to come back, but the tourists aren’t going to come back because most of the animals you see nowadays have amputated legs.’

Fate of a nation

Without intervention – whatever the election results – it seems unlikely that Zimbabwe’s wildlife will escape the long shadow of robert mugabe’s regime. if something isn’t done, ZCTF believes there will be no animals left in the country by 2013. ‘We need to sort the land issue and make the people around here stakeholders in the animals’ welfare,’ says Johnny rodrigues. ‘Without these measures, within five years we won’t have a single animal left. Zimbabwe has to do more to protect these animals; they don’t just belong to Zimbabwe, they belong to the world.’

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008