By Laiton Mkandawire
Before the release of the Born Free USA and CHADS report entitled “Ivory’s Curse: The Militarisation and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa”, the common man in many African countries knew who exactly the real poachers were. But making this known to the authorities became a matter of reporting criminals to themselves.
On Zimbabwe this is what the report had to say: “Partly what’s happening with poaching is a result of the political situation, where you have a regime that’s been in place for so long we feel it is complicit in the ivory trade - giving impunity to the actors involved. It’s very hard to get a handle on what’s happening. In 1997, when the international ban on trade in elephant ivory was first undermined, one of the countries behind that was Zimbabwe. And the international meeting where that happened was held in Harare.”
We all now know that the highest demand for ivory in the world is in Asia. We have been welcoming Asians here in droves on a daily basis without checking how they conduct themselves once on the ground. This is particularly true for Zimbabwe and the Hwange National Park elephant cyanide poisoning pointed in this direction. Those arrested and convicted could not have been the real masterminds behind the heinous poaching act – mere villagers with no capacity to organise such a gigantic operation – possibly mere carriers.
Of more concern in places like Kariba, which is well-endowed with wildlife resources, is the fact that even though the conservation infrastructure is quite good, there is a seemingly deliberate under-deployment of resources by government. The private sector and communities affected have had to jump in to protect themselves from both the inaction of those governing them and the marauding poachers.
Lake Kariba is a prime example where organised groups involving suspected high-ranking government officials are sponsoring people to buy kapenta from struggling formal operators at night. Very little action has been taken until recently when it has become abundantly clear that action is needed due to fast-dwindling stocks.
The increase in privately-run anti-poaching units in and around Kariba should have alerted the government to a very serious problem. But alas, no-one cared. The Gache Gache Wilderness Area WEPU anti-Poaching Unit was formed when the community realised that a tipping point was being reached – this is when the rate of death in wildlife stock overtakes the rate of birth. They have been successful, stocks have recovered and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has rendered support.
The same happened in Kariba town where the Kariba Animal Welfare Fund Trust (KAWFT) had to be set up by private individuals concerned with the declining protection offered to our wildlife and other natural resources. The same happened with the Tashinga Initiative Foundation (TIF) and the Matusadona Anti-Poaching Project (MAPP).
There could be others that I have not mentioned here who are doing tremendous work, but it should suffice to say private individuals have had to take up initiative after realising that the enemy was not only the poacher but also some of those entrusted with the mandate of protecting our wildlife resources, through acts of commission or omission.
There are major difficulties in policing the protection of wildlife and they are not being addressed because they serve certain individuals within the system well. Even these private initiatives need overseeing as not all people involved are well-intentioned. The government must be forced to play its rightful role, not to be allowed to abdicate responsibilities.
I was moved by Johan Jooste’s remarks quoted by the Sunday Times of April 20, 2014 regarding the anti-poaching effort in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He reportedly said “This war is not going to be won in the bush. We can only win in the courts and in the boardrooms.” He added that “these are not people poaching because they’re poor and hungry – they’re greedy.” Exactly our situation!
Due to the fact that high-ranking government officials or their families are involved, insider help is rendered. Some have been fingered in the Hwange National Park elephant debacle but little has been done. There are plausible claims that professional hunters, game rangers, trackers and the police have been involved in poaching and/or get intelligence to the poachers about impending operations.
Fishermen’s accounts will tell you that some fishing companies in the Chawara area of Kariba are “allowed” to fish in breeding areas without repercussions because their operators grease the palms of rangers and patrol unit leaders.
Under these circumstances, the people who eventually get caught and get penalised are the poor Zimbabweans who battle poverty and socioeconomic injustices. We are not arresting the real big-time culprits and, therefore, the problem persists unabated. The poor and marginalised must be protected, just like the wildlife. They must make an income from conservation efforts in order for them not to be lured into poaching. We need to show them how.
One of our greatest responsibilities and obligations to future generations is the conservation of our heritage. We should not allow the greedy affluent, be they Asian, European, American or local Africans, to corrupt the poor, use them, abuse them and then refuse them in the end. Let the dragnet drag in all involved regardless of class.