By Alex Bell
Fears about the future safety of the 'protected' Zimbabwe Presidential elephant herd have been further heightened, after reports of gunfire and suspected hunting activity at one of the herd's watering holes.
The reports came from a nearby safari lodge, claiming that a man called Ruben Mkandla and two hunters were shooting the elephants this weekend. Mkandla is understood to be the brother-in-law of former Mines Minister Obert Mpofu.
SW Radio Africa was unable to verify the reports on Tuesday.
But the claims will do little to ease the fears of conservationists in and around Zimbabwe, because the reports follow just days after warnings that the elephants are under threat.
Last week, Johnny Rodrigues the Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), warned that the elephants faced being killed despite the Presidential decree meant to be protecting them. He told SW Radio Africa that the decision by the herd's primary caretaker to step aside, left them vulnerable to hunting activities.
Last week Sharon Pincott, who founded and ran the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project since 2001, announced she was stopping her work. This shock decision followed a worsening fight caused by the takeover of a piece of land in the Hwange National Park, which serves as the herd's home range.
The land in the Kanondo area has been claimed by a woman who insists she has an inheritance claim to the land, despite a 2013 directive by Zimbabwe's Cabinet that offer letters for the land be withdrawn. Instead, the Kanondo land claimant has forged ahead with the building of a safari lodge called the Gwango Elephant Lodge, which claims to be a conservancy opening for tourism business.
The claimant, Elisabeth Pasalk/Freeman, is understood to be an American resident, but concern has been raised amid reports that she is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure.
Pincott was fighting for support and intervention from the government, because of the threat the land claim has to the Presidential elephant herd's future safety. But her efforts have been to no avail and she has now completely withdrawn from the Project.
Rodriques said: "Once she's removed from there, the Presidential elephants will be gone. I hope they move on, but I believe the people claiming this land are interlinked with hunting operations so I don't see any future for these animals. They will all be shot and that will be the end of the Presidential herd."
Meanwhile, a leading, international conservation group has warned in a new report that land grabs in Zimbabwe were a direct threat to elephant populations in Africa. The report commissioned by the Born Free group said that Zimbabwe could become a poaching hot spot as a result of the lawless and murky manner in which conservation land has been parceled out to ZANU PF members.