Hwange’s elephants in the crosshairs
Don Pinnock
24 Nov 2013

 Hwange is one of Africa’s finest national parks where, at the right time of year, elephants stream into waterholes in their hundreds. But the recent mass poisoning of elephants within its boundaries has highlighted the problems of a wilderness under stress from both poaching and hunting. By Sunday Times Correspondent.

There are many ways to kill an elephant in Zimbabwe, it just takes money and the right contacts. The poisoning of more than 100 in Hwange National Park has overshadowed officially-sanctioned hunting that allows the clients of professional hunters (many of them South African) to bag trophies within the park. Added to poaching with snares, guns and now cyanide plus the stress of water scarcity, the park’s elephants are heading deeper and deeper into trouble.

Setting up a hunt in Hwange took two phonecalls. Zimparks Hunting Licenses division gave me the name of a Gweru professional hunter named Thomas Chimedza who said he could get me a trophy bull in the park for $5500 plus $200 a day on a 10-day hunt. When I asked why it took 10 days to find an elephant he said there were many elephants but we needed to look for a big bull.

This is far more affordable that a regular safari in the Matetsi Game Reserve just north of Hwange, where an elephant hunt is said to cost at least $30 000. Prices have been pushed up by a total ban on hunting in Botswana, just across the border.

Shooting elephants in Hwange and other Zimbabwe parks is now legal. Chimedza would apply for a ration permit to supply meat to parks staff or maybe a Problem Animal Control permit to hunt in adjoining areas under Zimparks. After that we’d meet and head into the bush. According to National Parks guidelines, only non-trophy animals with tusks under 30kg could be hunted. But for a few extra dollars?

Zimparks nets about $380 000 a year from ration hunting which translates into 69 elephants. With an average elephant weight of 5000 kilograms that totals 345 454kg. Subtract half for bone weight and you have 172 727kg of meat. It makes for very well fed park staff. But according to a conservationist, it’s probably feeding the police and army as well. This is good revenue for the park – if it doesn’t get absorbed into head office in Harare (as park staff claim it does).

‘Allowing commercial hunting in our parks has opened up a can of worms,’ said an official who asked not to be named. ‘When it began five years ago, hunters were shooting animals off the game drive roads, but it became too blatant so they were given areas away from tourists.

‘The other day I saw a Jo’burg-registered hunting vehicle with 10 dogs on the back. That means they were after leopard. They pot anything – sable, bushbuck, buffalo, elephants. When I see a South African hunting vehicle I have an urge to slash its tyres.’

The line between permit hunting and poaching is becoming increasingly blurred. Until recently, communities south of Hwange managed sustainable hunting under the Campfire initiative, where certain trophy animals were sold to hunters and the money distributed among local families.

According to conservationist Johnny Rodrigues, communities used to make money from selling game meat, but have been shut out of the business by safari owners. In addition, land invasions into community conservancies have loosened community control and inducements to poach from syndicates – said to include members of Zimbabwe’s large Chinese community – have increased.

Following the cyanide poisoning of more than 100 elephants, the new Environment, Water and Climate Minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, acted with gratifying swiftness, contacting park and conservation personnel, sanctioning aerial surveys and driving officials to effect arrests and speedy convictions. Five poachers received stiff jail sentences and four police detectives were held for soliciting bribes from the syndicate.

Kasukuwere described the poaching ring as ‘a well-organised syndicate that includes locals, middlemen and financiers based outside the country.’ Zimparks has recalled former game rangers and specialised anti-poaching support staff to boost the number of personnel on the ground in the park.

According to conservationist Colin Bell, the Minister and parks staff need to be commended on their strong and uncompromising reaction as well as their transparency in dealing with the poisoning.

Kasukuwere set up a an advisory trust of respected and well known conservationists and businessmen to advise and help in Hwange and the results are already coming in – vehicles donations and strict controls on equipment,’ he said.’

The Standard newspaper in Zimbabwe, however, claims that there are ‘tigers and flies’ in the cyanide issue, with Kasukuwere’s net targeting the flies – villagers used by powerful politicians to poison the elephants on their behalf.

‘There are five ministers [names supplied] implicated in this saga, but it’s difficult to nail them down because they have used threats and money to cover their tracks,’ according to its news editor, Caiphas Chimhete.

Zimbabwe’s MDC-T Shadow Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Thamsanga Mahlangu, alleged that the poachers were connected to well-known senior Zanu-PF members, Zimbabwe Wildlife Management Authority officials and police officers.

Wildlife conservationist David Peddie says a major threat to animals and the environment in Hwange is the close alliance between Chinese operations in the area and some well connected officials, including top security force personnel. ‘Joint Chinese-Zimbabwe interests have been given coal and other mining concessions throughout the area northeast of the park,’ he said. ‘This has created a major water and air pollution hazard in the Hwange town area and could be a threat to the tourism industry if the proposed Gwayi Coal and Power Project goes ahead. It has also provided the ‘alliance’ with access to elephants. The ownership of the Matetsi hunting concessions [north of the park] by some of the same people is part of the issue.’

Trying to work out the sustainable number of elephants in any area is a moving target, which involves counts, calculations of their impact and management through the opening and closing of waterholes or culls. Surveys of numbers require expensive aerial counts or on-the-ground estimates.

According to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority, the country has over 100 000 elephants, with 45 000 in Hwange alone, but no reliable counts have been conducted for a                        decade. Conservationists I spoke to claimed that to be a ‘hunter’s count’ and estimated Hwange to have around 25 000 and declining. This is in line with an international situation which has seen the world’s elephant population of 10 million in 1900 fall to around 460 000 today.

Zimbabwe has 50 tonnes of stockpiled ivory and claims that its sale will fund anti-poaching. However, legal trading in ivory, supported by a strong market lobby, has in the past proved devastating for elephants.

In 1989 all international trade in ivory was banned. Eight years later, after pressure from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana, it down-listed elephant protection and allowed a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles from these countries. In 2008 it approved another stockpile sale.

A report, Making a Killing by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and another, Blood Ivory by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has highlighted the tragedy of these decisions to legalise trade. Following the sales, poaching escalated to a point where the future of the creatures is now in doubt. On average, an elephant is presently poached every 15 minutes. At this rate, extinction is not far ahead.

In the same way that legal sales increased demand for ivory in 1989 and 2008, permit elephant hunting in Zimbabwe’s parks feeds that demand and creates loopholes for illegal hunting and, ultimately, for poaching.

For more information see www.conservationaction.co.za.