Zimbabwe suspends hunting to save rhinos

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:


Special to ANIMAL PEOPLE by Barnabas Thondlana
with additional research by Merritt Clifton

HARARE-Internationally criticized for
failing to stop rhinoceros poaching, the
Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Author-ity on
November 30, 2009 temporarily suspended wildlife
hunting licences, interrupting trophy hunting by
foreign visitors near the peak of the season.
Trophy hunting has in recent years been
among the few reliable sources of foreign
exchange for the financially depleted Zimbabwean
“National Parks & Wildlife Authority
would like to warn the public that all current
hunting permits have been suspended with
immediate effect to verify them,” said a notice
published in state-approved media. “All current
permit holders are advised to approach the Parks
Authority to verify validity of their permits,”
the notice added.

The suspension, though surprising, was
not unprecedented. The Zimbabwe Parks and
Wildlife Management Authority in May 2006
suspended hunting in conservancies. “We cannot
allow people to continue hunting,” parks public
relations manager Retired Major Edward Mbewe told
the government-owned Harare Herald then, “because
we want the animals to be more mature, to
improve the quality of the trophies.”
This time, “National Parks is reacting
to numerous reports of poaching, including
over-hunting of quotas and abuse of permits,”
said a senior official with a local
non-governmental organization that campaigns
against poaching. The official declined to be
named, from fear of reprisals.
Zimbabwe National Parks director general
Morris Mutsambiwa could not be reached for
comment. Zimbabwe National Parks officials have
blamed a resurgence of poaching on a cartel of
international gangsters they say are funding
poachers to kill rare species, especially
“We have lost close to 200 rhinos in the
last two to three years,” testified Mutsam-biwa
on November 2, 2009 to the Parliament-ary
Portfolio Committee on Natural Resources,
Environment & Tourism. “From the intelligence we
are gathering,” Mutsambiwa added, “we strongly
believe that there are syndicates which operate
in the region involving locals, South African
citizens, and also people of Asian origin. Asia
seems to be the main market for the rhino horns.”
Mutsambiwa said 86 suspected poachers had
been arrested during the first 10 months of 2009,
mentioning the arrests of South Africans,
Zambians, and Chinese.
However, “Of the 45 reported [poaching] cases, 33 involved Zimbabweans either working
alone or with international smuggling rings,”
summarized the Harare Herald.
“In the past,” Mutsambiwa asserted,
“poaching for species like rhinos and elephants
was restricted to outside people. The worrying
factor is that locals are now participating
together with the international and regional
“Journalists were asked to leave the room
when national parks officials were about to give
statistics on the remaining population,” the
Herald continued, “but experts put the figures at
slightly over 500 and 300 respectively for black
and white rhinos. If accurate, this means
Zimbabwe has lost about a quarter of its rhino
population in three years.”

Ministers involved

Zimbabwean wildlife agencies have
struggled to contain poaching in national parks
for decades. The job became more difficult after
landless villagers–encouraged by the Robert
Mugabe government–began invading white-owned
farms in 2000. The land invasions destroyed many
of the private wildlife reserves which had
catered to non-consumptive wildlife tourism, and
some of those that hosted trophy hunters.
There have been widespread reports of
illegal and uncontrolled trophy hunting on former
white-owned conservancies, now controlled by
powerful politicians from Mugabe’s Zanu PF party.
In July 2009, for instance, the
Zimbabwe Standard alleged that, “A massive
official cover-up could be underway after police
investigations into the ballooning illegal trade
in rhino horns netted two Zanu PF ministers.
Investigations by the Standard show that a police
crack unit following the trail of rhino poachers
ended up at the doorsteps of Zanu PF politicians
who cannot be named, at least for now, because
of the complexity of the case. The two
politicians have been saved from prosecution
after the dockets ‘mysteriously disappeared’ from
the magistrates’ court.”
“No one wanted to take the case because
we all know that cases involving high-profile
people are always covered up,” unnamed “judicial
sources” told the Standard.
The conviction rate in Zimbabwean rhino
poaching cases is just 3%, according to the
World Wildlife Fund trade monitoring arm TRAFFIC.
“While attorney general Johannes Tomana
could not be reached to explain circumstances
surrounding the case,” the Standard continued,
“environmental and natural resources management
minister Francis Nhema admitted that senior Zanu
PF officials had been implicated.”
Said Nhema, “Yes, it might be possible
that some government officials are abusing their
powers and are involved in rhino poaching, but
we do not have the names. We are still
investigating the matter.” Nhema said Mugabe
himself had asked him “for the names of the
ministers involved.”
Nhema told the Standard that in one case
resulting in the arrest of a Chinese citizen for
poaching rhinos, a “person very close to a
minister was using the minister’s name.”
The arrested suspect, Wang Xuebin, 49,
“was remanded out of custody,” the Standard said.
“Three weeks ago two rhinos were killed
in Hwange and we are positive that some top
people in the government are involved,” said
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chair Johnny
Rodrigues. “Right now we have the names of some
senior officials who are implicated,” Rodrigues
added, “but we can not release their names
because investigations are still underway. We
cannot blame foreigners only,” Rodrigues
emphasized, “because there are also people from
the top who are involved. There are cases where
some members of the army were shot by the
anti-poaching team, and it’s quite clear that
these soldiers were sent by very influential
The Standard exposé followed the release
of a report from the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species which described
similar incidents.
“A park ranger arrested with overwhelming
evidence against him for having killed three
rhinos in the Chipinge Safari Area was acquitted
without any satisfactory explanation for the
verdict,” said the CITES report. “Similarly in
September 2008 a gang of four Zimbabwean poachers
who admitted to killing 18 rhinos were also freed
in a failed judiciary process.”
Mutsambiwa told the Parliamentary
Portfolio Committee on Natural Resources,
Environment & Tourism that increased rhino
poaching “has been linked to two factors. The
first is that South Africa and Namibia were given
permission by CITES to hunt five rhinos each.
Some parties in Africa argue,” in opposition to
allowing exports of elephant ivory, that “if you
give the right to legally trade in ivory, you
give rise to poaching,” Mutsam-biwa said,
hinting that allowing legal exports of rhino horn
might have the same effect.
Mutsambiwa also noted that under current
Zimbabwean law, cattle rustlers face stiffer
penalties on conviction than poachers: up to
nine years in jail for every beast they steal.
“We haven’t been able to generate enough revenue
for rhino protection,” Mutsambiwa added.
“KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, spends $3,000
U.S. per square kilometer, while we spend less
than $10.”
The International Union for Conservation
of Nature and TRAFFIC jointly reported in
November 2009 that 95% of the rhino poaching in
Africa has occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
“These two nations collectively form the
epicentre of an unrelenting poaching crisis in
southern Africa,” said TRAFFIC researcher Tom
Milliken. The IUCN/TRAFFIC report explained that
increasingly sophisticated poachers now kill
rhinos with veterinary drugs, poison, and
crossbows as well as high caliber firearms. The
IUCN/TRAFFIC report noted that Vietnamese
nationals operating in South Africa have recently
been identified in rhino crime investigations.
Elaborated the Thanh Nien Daily, of
Vietnam, “Nguyen Van Lam, a former deputy head
of a government office, resigned in July 2006
after he left a handbag with 10 envelopes inside
containing $10,300 U.S. at the Hanoi airport. He
claimed that most of it was from friends and
colleagues who wanted him to buy rhino horns for
“Four months later South African police
accused a Vietnamese embassy official in
Pretoria, Nguyen Khanh Toan, of carrying rhino
horns out of the country,” under cover of
diplomatic immunity.
“In November 2008 the Vietnamese embassy
in South Africa was again in the news after first
secretary Vu Moc Anh was filmed buying rhino
horns from a South African trafficker in front of
the embassy building. Anh was called home by the
government, but it is not clear what action was
taken against her.”
South Africa
The KwaZulu-Natal wildlife department on
December 11, 2009 announced the arrest of an
alleged poacher who was believed to have killed
two white rhinos in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
“The suspect was wounded in the leg and
was arrested after an exchange of gunfire with
field rangers. Three other suspects managed to
escape,” said KwaZulu-Natal wildlife agency
spokesperson Jeff Gaisford.
Blaming increased rhino and elephant
poaching on gangs from Mozambique, South African
National Parks chief executive David Mabunda in
July 2009 announced that 57 more rangers would be
assigned to anti-poaching patrols along the
eastern boundary of Kruger National Park.
“Mabunda also welcomed the military back
to the park,” reported Yolandi Groenwald of the
Johannesburg Mail & Guardian. “The military
stopped patrolling the park three years ago and
poaching rapidly increased. Since the beginning
of 2009,” Groenwald said, “Kruger National Park
has lost 26 white rhino and one black rhino to
poaching. Last year it lost 36 rhinos to
poachers. At least 80 rhinos were killed in
South Africa last year and some say the figure
might be much higher.”
Kenya, Tanzania
Rhino poaching has ceased in several
other African nations because they no longer have
rhinos. The last four northern white rhinos in
the wild vanished from Garamba National Park in
the Congo in August 2006.
The Dvur Kralove Zoo in Prague, the
Czech Republic, in December 2009 transferred to
the Ol Pejeta conservation area in Kenya three
northern white rhinos born at the zoo and one
captured from the wild in 1976. The zoo and
Kenyan wildlife officials hope that the transfer
will stimulate breeding. None of the Prague zoo
rhinos have become pregnant since the birth of
the youngest in June 2000. Two northern white
rhinos remain at the Dvur Kralove Zoo. The only
others in existence are a pair at the San Diego
Kenya currently has 609 black rhinos and
336 southern white rhinos, according to minister
of forestry and wildlife Noah Wekesa. But Kenya
had 20,000 just of black rhinos in 1973, Wekesa
acknowledged. By 1989 only 285 were left.
Tanzania has 30 to 35 black rhinos left
in Serengheti National Park, stretching south
from Masai Mara National Park in Kenya.
Tanzanian National Parks Authority planning
director Allan Kijazi on November 29, 2009
announced the purchase of 32 black rhinos from
South Africa, to be released into Serengheti in
April 2010. The South African black rhinos are
descended from rhinos originally captured in

Asian rhinos

Asian rhinos, never as abundant, are
comparably menaced by poaching throughout their
range. As few as 10 Javan rhinos remain in Cat
Tien National Park in Vietnam, plus about 50 in
Ujung Kulan, Indonesia, of whom the World
Wildlife Fund has identified 37 through the use
of video cameras.
The largest numbers of one-horned rhinos
are in Royal Chitwan National Park, Bardiya
National Park, and the Suklaphanta Wildlife
Reserve in Nepal, which have not more than 450
among them, and in Kaziranga National Park in
Assam state, India, which has about 1,800.
Poachers in recent years are known to be
killing about four rhinos per year in Nepal. The
toll in India was about 6-7 per year until 2007,
when 20 were killed in Kaziranga due to security
lapses reviewed in recent editions of
International Zoo News and Oryx by Lucy Vigne and
Esmond Martin of Save The Elephants. The
situation appeared to stabilize in 2008, but 14
rhinos were kiled in Kaziranga in 2009.
Rhino protection in both Nepal and Assam
was weakened during the past decade by diversions
of resources into fighting insurgencies, but
Vigne and Martin find basic management issues
more directly responsible. However, Martin,
Vigne, and Chryssy Martin explained in the June
2009 edition of Pachyderm, about 180 rhinos were
poached in Nepal between 2001 and 2006, the peak
years of a Maoist insurgency which has become
part of the present Nepalese government.


[Barnabas Thondlana was news editor and
later associate editor of the Daily News, the
first major independent newspaper in Zimbabwe,
from formation in 1999 until it was closed by the
government in 2003. In May 2009 he became
founding editor of NewsDay, a second attempt to
start an independent Zimbabwean newspaper. He
was forced out in November 2009 after the backers
could not obtain a government license to publish.]
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