Zimbabwe’s magnificent big five disappearing
By Patrick Musira in HARARE Zimbabwe’s unique network of natural parks and wildlife conservancies is back in the gun-sights for failing to stem the decline of one of its “big five” large inland savanna mammals – the black rhino.
A shocking hike in black rhino poaching, with more than 200 reportedly slaughtered in the last three Years and only a 3 % conviction rate for those charged with these heinous crimes, led the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN) to call for an enquiry.
The situation for large wildlife mammal populationS is likely to get worse and the future for the rhino is bleak as “we’ve reached stage where we need to re-strategise the black rhino”.
A recent study that highlights the threat to bio-diversity loss across the African continent warns that urgent efforts are needed to better protect the animals and vegetation and secure the future of the game reserves – which draw millions of tourists annually and provide much-needed income.
Across Africa, populations of the large mammals such as elephant, lion, zebra, buffalo and rhino have declined by an average of 59% since 1970, according to one research which collated data from parks including popular tourist safari destinations such as Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Nicholas Duncan, of Save Foundation of Australia (Inc), who was in Harare recently, says Zimbabwe ’s black rhino is the hardest hit.
In an interview with this journalist en route to Hwange game park with THE second of three groups of Australian veterinarians on a “charity” tour to some of the country’s game parks, Duncan recapped the rhino situation over the past 40 years.
In 1972 there were about 65 000 black rhinos roaming Africa. By 1987 this number had been decimated to only 3 500! This was a result of rampant poaching through East Africa and Zambia, with Zimbabwe remaining as the largest rhino custodian with 2 500!
“Between 1985 and 1993 the poachers started crossing the Zambezi river and training their gun-sights on the species and its numbers were reduced to a mere 290,” says Duncan, founder and director of Save Foundation.
The trend indicates that African national parks have dismally failed to maintain their populations of large mammals, probably due to lack of money and staff to police the parks, high rates of habitat degradation and the growing game meat trade.
Southern Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, has been the exception to the above and provides hope and demonstrates that protected areas can be very effective for conserving large mammals if properly resourced.
Alarmed by the threat to its wildlife, some reasonable and fairly successful conservation measures, “including setting up of intensive private protection zones”, were then adopted and there was a gradual increase until the numbers peaked in 2005 to about 550
Unfortunately, Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis in the last decade with the accompanying sanctions from traditional Western source markets “unintentionally” prevented imports of equipment, drugs, game vehicles and other hardware that could be deemed “military”, has seen poachers fighting back.
“Now poaching involving highly trained, equipped and organized international syndicates – financed mostly from South Africa and the Far East (Japan, Vietnam and China) has again reared its ugly head, resulting in the decline of the rhino population to around 400,” Duncan reveals.
“A lot of unscrupulous hunters, especially South Africans, took advantage of the Zimbabwean situation to make a fortune while the sun shines,” he moans.
Reliable reports from SA say 250 rhinos, including six black rhinos, were slaughtered across the country to the end of OCTOBER this year – compared to 120 last year!
“As a foundation, we SEE our role as providers of vital field and veterinary equipment to help protect and manage Zimbabwe’s rhino nuclei.
“We of course understand there’s great mistrust in sending money to Zimbabwe through government official channels – that’s the politics,” he says , adding although his foundation also does send money TO PAY LOCAL BILLS, it MAINLY donates game uniforms, vehicles, radio, batteries and other material they believe useful.
“We need to retake the initiative to meet the constant demand for more kit, technology, spare parts and other material needs for national parks and conservancies,” says Duncan, on his 56th visit to the country on black rhino business.
One of the most frustrating things, he says, is the lack of prosecution of those caught on the wrong side of the game fence with smoking guns.
Only about five out of 83 people have been found guilty, fined and sentenced!
“The judicial system needs to take a more serious approach and review of the fines and sentences,” he says, cautiously happy that the authorities had revised upwards fines on wildlife poaching.
Although industry experts have welcomed the steps announced by the National Parks to address the situation, Duncan, who has totally fallen in love with the country’s wildlife since his first visit when recuperating from an illness in the late 1980s, warns the rhino’s survival remains precarious and the species may go the way of the dodo!
“Lack of political will, imperfect oversight and enforcement mean problems will persist,” says a source in the besieged Save Valley conservancy, pointing fingers in the direction of some units in the military, police and intelligence services and accusing them of slaughtering rhinos in collusion with hunting outfits from South Africa and Far East syndicates – Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China.
The rhino horn is in high demand for its supposed medicinal powers that experts dismiss saying the horn has no proven medicinal value – it’s just like chewing your fingernails!”
Another strategy paying dividends is de-horning of the black rhino. In this instance government vets have made attempts to de-horn rhinos so they no longer have value for poachers, but the process must be repeated because the horns regrow. The army and police have been called in to conservation areas and national parks to defend the animals, but it is alleged that some soldiers turn poachers themselves.
Around 35 rhinos have been killed THIS YEAR to feed the lucrative Chinese black market, said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
Since last year economic collapse and the breakdown of law and order have contributed to a rapid escalation in poaching by organised gangs. “In the past 15 months we’ve lost 120 rhinos, and we’re still losing two to four per month,” Rodrigues said. “We used to have 1 000 in this country.” NOT SINCE 1990
The exact size of Zimbabwe’s current rhino population is debated. Save the Rhino, a British-based charity, puts the total at above 700. Rodrigues says it is about 400. Both agree the situation represents a crisis. AROUND 400 FOR BLACK AND NEARLY 700 INCLUDING WHITE RHINOS.
He added: “It’s all linked to the top. All those corrupt ministers are trying to cream off as much as possible before the next election. But if the carnage continues over the next two years we’ll SOMETHINGS GONE MISSING HERE? When contacted for comment National Parks and Wildlife Management public relations officer Caroline Washaya, developed cold feet, ducking and later refusing to answer questions sent to her at her request following a visit at her office.
But a National Parks investigations officer derisively waved away the allegations, branding them “the usual propaganda from the usual suspects”.
The official castigated some countries for spreading rumours that poaching was on the increase in the country.
He pointed that Zimbabwe was doing all it could to curb poaching around all the parks – national and private.
He said poaching had decreased significantly after national parks had engaged the services of the Zimbabwe National Army.
“Over 70 rhinos were killed in 2008 and 2009 saw 47 deaths – a 32% reduction – despite a shortage of resources the country is facing due to sanctions (of military equipment),” he said.
He also revealed that as of last month (September) 13 poachers had been killed during operations and an assortment of weapons and wildlife products – ivory, horns, hides – were recovered.
The Zimbabwe Defence Forces, in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, has over the years successfully carried out anti-poaching operations as the ZDF fulfils one of its mandated roles of supporting sectors that come short due to different circumstances.
A rhino horn can sell for thousands of pounds on the black market. Along with Chinese medicine, the horns are used for ornamental dagger handles in some Middle Eastern countries.
Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority challenged Rodrigues’ claims, but refused to give a figure for the rhino population.
“We definitely have more than 400,” said Vitalis Chadenga, director of conservation. “But it’s true we’re facing an upsurge in the poaching of rhinos. This has taken place mostly on private farms, though parks have also suffered losses.
He insisted: “The government takes it very seriously. We have de-horned some rhinos and relocated some to safer areas where we can afford them maximum protection … if you come here in 10 years’ time you will still see the rhino. They are safe but they are under threat. There is not a soft touch in terms of law enforcement.”
Other pressure groups are, however, not buying the story and are challenging the government and those implicated in the alleged poaching to come clean and intensify efforts to save the endangered animal.
The government has said tourism is one of its best opportunities for quick economic revival. But Rodrigues warns and insists: “We were the jewel of Africa, but we’ve gone back 15 or 20 years. The wildlife has been decimated to such a stage that there’ll be nothing left for tourists when they come back to the country.”
THUIS IS A REPEATED PARA. Although some have welcomed steps announced by National Parks to address the situation, Duncan, who has fallen head over heels with the country’s wildlife since his first visit when recuperating in the early 1980s, warns the rhino’s survival remains precarious and the species may go way of the dodo.
SO’S THIS “The judicial system needs to take a more serious approach and review of the fines and sentences,” he says, cautiously happy that the authorities had revised upwards fines on wildlife poaching.
AND THIS “Lack of political will, imperfect oversight and enforcement mean problems will persist,” says a source in the Sabi Conservancy, south-east of the country, pointing fingers in the direction of rogue units from the military, police and intelligence services, accusing them of turning game parks into slaughterhouses in collusion with hunting outfits from South Africa and further afield.
“The names that keep on being whispered are the Musina mafia, with names of Johannes Roos and Dawie Groenewald, being frequently mentioned,” he says.
The animal groups argue that the high stakes business, with huge international money and powerful political figures behind it, is so complicated it was virtually impossible to track back to their source.
The rhino horn is in high demand for its supposed medicinal powers that experts dismiss saying “the horn has no medicinal value – it’s like chewing your fingernail!”
y these systems are complicated but should we stand beside and look?” he asks.
“No! We disagree. Against all odds we will do all we can to save the rhino!” he says.
“We just have to work, work and work and we will succeed,” he declares, telling me: “To use a cliché, for once and for all who believe in the preservation of God’s beautiful creation fauna and flora – yes we can!”