Tichaona Mutyairi, a Zimbabwe rhino poacher with the infamous Mazhongwe gang, has been sentenced to 17 years in jail after being captured during an exchange of gunfire with the police in October 2009. Although a regional court in the town of Masvingo took a strict stance, punishing the poacher to the full extent of Zimbabwe's wildlife and firearm laws, this sentence remains a rare occurrence among captured poachers.International conservationists are watching the Mutyairi case given the highly varied outcomes in several court cases against members of rhino poaching gangs that have recently been finalized or are still underway.
Previous poachers released from jail
In previous court cases, many poachers have been released from jail escaping punishment instead of facing strong, consistent sentences that would deter them from hunting down Zimbabwe's remaining rhinos.
"After so much conservation effort and funding has been ploughed into rhino protection in Zimbabwe, we look to the Zimbabwean authorities to hold up their side of our shared commitment to conserve rhinos," said Dr. Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation. "If strict sentences continue to be imposed on poachers, there may finally be a chance that the poachers will start to back off from their all-out assault on Zimbabwe's remaining rhinos".
These court rulings will be put under the international spotlight when Zimbabwe's track record of rhino conservation is assessed at the March conference of parties to the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). By then, it may be clear if Mutyairi's recent case is a turning point in the conservation battle or is merely false hope that Zimbabwe's law-enforcement officers and court officials have resolved to confront the poaching menace.
Weak law enforcement encourages poachers
The temptation to poach rhinos has been stimulated by weak levels of law enforcement in Zimbabwe. Since January 2008, approximately 40 rhino poachers have been arrested, often through the efforts of private rhino custodians. However, fewer than five of the arrested poachers have actually been convicted for their crimes, which include use of illegal firearms and the slaughtering of the endangered rhino species. More....