Failing Zimbabwe farmers poison elephants

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2011:

Zimbabwe–Driven by drought and inability to farm on property seized a decade ago,  desperate Zimbabweans have begun a second round of land invasions.

Land invasions during the first years of the 21st century left the Zimbabwean trophy hunting industry largely intact,  but destroyed nonlethal wildlife watching and turned Zimbabwe from being one of Africa’s major food exporting nations into requiring international food aid.  Encouraging the land invasions kept the ZANU-PF party in power,  extending the tenure of President Robert Mugabe to 31 years.  But Mugabe,  87,  is suffering from advanced prostate cancer,  according to leaked diplomatic papers.

The ascent of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change into a coalition government after a disputed 2008 election raised hope of eventual post-Mugabe reform and economic improvement.  Before that can happen,  however,  Zimbabwe must survive a rush by ZANU-PF supporters to grab whatever more they can in the anticipated denouement of the Mugabe regime.  The remaining Zimbabwean protected habitat and wildlife are among the most vulnerable targets.

“There are new land invasions in the Chiredzi River Conservancy,”   Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder Johnny Rodrigues e-mailed to supporters on August 30,  2011,  adding details on September 26.  “The Chiredzi River Conservancy,  part of the Trans Frontier Conservation Area,  is an internationally renowned wildlife conservancy in the South Eastern Lowveld,”  Rodrigues explained. “During the drought of 1991-1992,”  a time many Zimbabweans remember as relatively peaceful and prosperous,   “a number of juvenile elephants were captured in Gonarezhou National Park and moved to the Chiredzi River Conservancy  to save them from starvation.  There are now approximately 70 of these elephants,”   Rodrigues recounted, “who have been under constant pressure from land invaders over the past 11 years,  but have learned to co-exist with them.
“However,”  Rodrigues continued,  “there has been a new influx of people cutting down trees,  poaching,  and destroying the already damaged environment.  The wildlife has already been suffering in these areas due to poaching–two months ago two young elephants were decapitated–but at least they had somewhere they could stay and feed.  The territory which had been set aside for the elephants has now been invaded and they have nowhere else to go.  In order to reach water holes and dams,  they have to pass through settled areas where they are harassed and chased by the invaders.

“The invaders are people who have already taken or been given land elsewhere in the Conservancy,”  Rodrigues emphasized.  “After 11 years of settlement and attempted farming,  the settlers are still relying on food aid,  because this area is too hot and the rainfall too low to grow crops,  no matter how much vegetation they destroy, or how many animals they kill.

“Minister of environment and tourism Francis Nhema was asked if the elephants could be moved to a safer area,”  Rodrigues said, “but he was adamant that they stay in the conservancy.  Whilst he acknowledged that the invaders were there illegally,  he has made no attempt to have them removed.  Game scouts are employed to patrol the area,”  Rodrigues added,  “but they live under constant threat from poachers,  politicians and invaders.  They are continually assaulted and abused.”  Rodrigues expressed concern that what little protection for wildlife Zimbabwe still offers may be failing nationwide.  “We have received reports recently of South African hunters allegedly being given permission by National Parks to shoot buffalo in the Kariba area–apparently for rations,”  Rodrigues said.  “Only about 32 buffalo are left there,  out of an original herd of 650.  We have been informed that National Parks have authorized shooting leopards in Matopas National Park,  a protected wildlife area.  It is extremely distressing to note that the guardians of our wildlife appear to be partially responsible for its demise.”

Since the first wave of land invasions began,  Rodrigues and the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force have emphasized protecting and restoring wildlife waterholes,  but now,  said Rodrigues,  “We have received reports of poachers poisoning waterholes in some of the biggest game reserves in the country,  such as Gonarezhou,  Mana Pools,  Zambezi,  Matusadona,  Charara,  and Hwange.

“In Hwange National Park, seven waterholes have allegedly been poisoned,”  Rodrigues said.  “The poison used is known as ‘Two Step,’  apparently because the animals who consume it take two steps and die.  Then scavengers who feed off the carcass,  such as hyena and vultures,  also die.  The only way to get rid of the poison,” Rodrigues speculated,  “would be to drain the water holes and then dig them up and dispose of the soil  where it won’t be a danger to any animals or humans.”

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo affirmed that watering holes in the five national parks have been poisoned,  killing nine elephants,  five lions,  two buffalo,  and several vultures.

“The elephant tusks were taken,  leaving the carcasses.  Lion skins were not taken,”  Washaya-Moyo said.
But the government-controlled Harare Herald preferred to emphasize the September 13  shooting of three suspected rhino poachers in the Chipangayi Safari Area near Chiredzi.  “Rangers, acting on a tip,  waylaid the suspected poachers and killed them in a pre-dawn ambush after exchanging gunfire,”  wrote Isdore Guvamombe for the Herald.  “Two others were arrested and their vehicle impounded,  while another suspect escaped,”  Guvamombe said.

The incident occurred in the vicinity of the Chiredzi River Conservancy Black Rhino Foundation.  At least 10 rhinos were poached in Zimbabwe during the first nine months of 2011,  but 279 were poached in neighboring South Africa,  including 169 in Kruger National Park.  A record 333 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2010,  up from just 17 in 2007.   The entire rhino population of Zimbabwe,  wild and domestic,  is believed to be fewer than 500;  two years of poaching at the South African intensity would extirpate the species.

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