Zimbabwe: Tough Call for Gonarezhou Rangers

by Jul 30, 2010Wildlife News

Harare — AS the four-seater Cessna flew low over the carcasses of two huge jumbos slain by poachers a week before, an eerie nauseating atmosphere filled the stuffy interior of the small aircraft. A short distance ahead, vultures were feasting on yet another dead elephant, a dinner that could last days for the scavengers if not disturbed.

Death is the price that the world’s biggest land mammals are paying for their tusks, which have a lucrative international market.

The question that was on everyone’s mind aboard the aircraft was:

Is Zimbabwe’s parks authority sufficiently equipped to effectively curb poaching activities, especially given the fact that poachers are coming into the country with far more sophisticated weapons than the rangers’ archaic looking Russian-made AK47 rifles?

Gonarezhou National Park, which is situated in the south eastern part of the country, is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park which incorporates Gaza National Park of Mozambique and Kruger National Park of South Africa.

Covering 5 053 square kilometers, this makes it a mammoth task for the few rangers deployed in the park to eradicate poaching activities, which are on the increase worldwide.

Due to the growth experienced in the ivory export business in the 1970s and 1980s, the total elephant population of Africa decreased by half. Up to one million elephants were killed for their tusks to the point where the endangered animal appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

Despite the resource constraints, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA), has made commendable strides in protecting the country’s elephant herd and managed to reduce poaching activities by 32 percent last year.

Vitalis Chadenga, the director-general of the ZPWMA, said the authority would never eradicate poaching completely as it is part of wildlife management but it was critical that it is kept within acceptable levels.

“We are dealing with a well resourced powerful syndicate operating in the region but we are, however, on top of the game as we have noted a decrease in poaching nationwide. We are working with security agents in the country, the Attorney General’s Office, the police and the courts to address this issue,” Chadenga said.

“Poaching is not new in Africa but we have deployed trained men to the park. Our major challenge is that the rangers cannot cover the whole park, which is big,” he added.

Similar killings over the years have led to the decimation of the black rhino from Gonarezhou and the country is planning to reintroduce the endangered species to the park, senior ZPWMA conservationist, Edson Gandiwa, said.

In 1989 the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora banned trade in ivory hoping to protect elephants from poachers. Some Western nations have also provided assistance to African countries in order to help crack down on poachers.

Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia have in the past decades accumulated huge stockpiles of ivory through culling, which is meant to keep the elephant herd within manageable levels.

Although the country is bound by a moratorium on ivory trade for nine years it is continuously arguing that if allowed to sell its ivory stockpiles the issue of poaching could be managed better.

Zimbabwe, which is sitting on a 34 tonne stockpile of ivory worth US$5,1billion, can only reapply for permission to trade in its ivory in 2017.

A December 2009 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature showed that since 2006, 95 percent of poaching in Africa has occurred in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The report also showed that the conviction rate for rhino crimes in Zimbabwe is only three percent.

Last November, the country was among 18 countries investigated in an Interpol operation to contain a racket involving the illegal trade in traditional medicines containing protected wildlife products.

Most rhino horns leaving southern Africa are destined for medicinal markets in south east and east Asia, especially Vietnam, where demand has escalated in recent years.

The demand for rhino horn is driven by an insatiable appetite in China and Vietnam where superstitions attribute medicinal properties to rhino horn.

According to Yahoo Answers ivory is used in the manufacture of electrical appliances including specialised electrical equipment for aeroplanes and radar.

“In China and Japan ivory has been used for inlay and small objects, especially for statues and carvings of small size and great precision and beauty of detail. In the last few centuries in Europe and North America, ivory has been employed to decorate furniture, for small statues, and occasionally as a surface for miniature painting,” writes Yahoo Answers.

ZPWMA senior wildlife officer, Daniel Sithole, said the duty of controlling illegal activities remains a challenge as there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.

He however, noted that the activities were declining on an annual basis.

“There is limited manpower levels . . . Rangers are shared among other station duties, which include tourism, roads and fireguards among other duties, which will leave the operation with a very limited number patrolling rangers out of the total,” he said.

“The other constraint is poor roads, which become impossible to access during the wet season hence patrols will be restricted to such areas where accessibility is easy. There is also lack of connectivity between the northern and southern part of our policing area due to the broken bridge. When the Runde river is full, deployment to the south is difficult,” Sithole said adding “Resettled people in Guluji are a threat as it is difficult to single out a poacher from a cattle herder.”

Meanwhile, the conflict between the Chitsa people, who have encroached into the Gonarezhou National Park, and the national parks authority continues because the government is yet to allocate them land for resettlement.

“The problem we are facing has to do with the people of Chitsa. That is an area of concern to ourselves. There is serious conflict as far as the implementation of the wildlife based land reform policy is concerned.

“People settling in the park are doing so in a haphazard manner and this is posing a threat to the security of animals,” Chadenga told journalists during a tour of Gonarezhou last weekend.

“The Chitsa people should not be in the park. They should be out of the park and that is our position. We have the hope that they would be relocated,” he added.

A tour around the area being infiltrated by the Chitsa people showed that animals were being scared further into the park as the settlers set traps for smaller game for the pot.

In the last three years the ZPWMA has removed 2 051 snares and 1 532 cattle were impounded from Gonarezhou.

Furthermore, the Chitsa people continue to infuriate the parks rangers by herding their cattle into the park in search for water and good pastures despite the lurking danger of lions.