By Wisdom Mdzungairi
This month of March is a critical period for the international community and in particular Zimbabwe to raise awareness on the threats to wild fauna and flora, the importance of improved conservation efforts and the fight against wildlife crime. World Wildlife Day is marked on March 3.
Besides, in March the world also observed what is known as Earth Hour –an initiative to save energy by promoting renewable energy.
During Earth Hour last week, the world at various times switched off power as a way to conserve energy.
It’s a noble initiative although Zimbabwe is never known to embrace such inventiveness.
But if the authorities were to be invited to take part at such initiatives elsewhere outside the country, I have no doubt that they would feature prominently and with a large delegation too.
This is why I was a bit surprised by Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere’s no show at an equally important world conference on combating illegal wildlife trade in Kasane, Botswana last Tuesday.
Kasukuwere had no reason to ‘dodge’ (if it is true that he did) that meeting given Zimbabwe has the second largest elephant population on the continent, with some 83 000 beasts.
The host Botswana has a 129 000, and considering that the jumbos travel between Chobe, Kasane, Hwange and Victoria Falls, there is no doubt that the two countries must work together to combat illegal wildlife trade besetting the region.
Out of as many as 650 000 elephants in the whole of Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe hold an estimated 212 000, and according to 2014 UN and Interpol report roughly 20 000 to 25 000 elephants are killed in Africa every year. How sad!
Because Kasukuwere’s other role is Zanu PF political commissar, I am told he chose to be politically correct by rallying his troops to vote for the Zanu PF candidates Barnwell Seremwe and Auxillia Mnangagwa in Mt Darwin West and Chirumanzu-Zibagwe respectively.
Of course, Kasukuwere is a political beast whose love for the environment may be very scant but because politics to him is now a career, he could not have refused the appointment.
Yet the appointing authority’s idea may have been to see how he would fare in that portfolio after years at the Youth and Indigenisation ministry.
Illegal trade in wildlife has become a sophisticated transnational form of crime, comparable to other pernicious examples, such as trafficking of drugs, humans, counterfeit items and oil. It is driven by rising demand, and is often facilitated by corruption and weak governance.
There is strong evidence of the increased involvement of organised crime networks and non-stated armed groups.
Getting serious about wildlife crime means enrolling the support of all sections of society, yet Zimbabwe’s voice was missing at the Kasane conference.
Perhaps, Kasukuwere should have considered that his ministry currently doesn’t have a deputy minister, and to avoid a vacuum he should have made efforts to spell out the country’s position regarding illegal wildlife trade.
Apart from increased elephant poaching, there has been an increase in the illegal killing of endangered species.
For instance, as of last year there were just 5 055 black rhinos left in the wild in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi.
While there has been a steady increase in its population in the country, the total represent a sharp decline of the species in 45 years.
The drop shows that the black rhino was being hunted relentlessly in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
Hence, experts last week warned that the region is facing a poaching crisis that is likely to see a further decline in the number of elephants in Africa.
Judging by presentations in Kasane, overall elephant poaching rates were virtually unchanged last year compared to 2013, but were still greater than natural elephant population growth rates, meaning a continued decline in elephant numbers overall is likely.
I cannot agree more with Botswana’s Environment minister Tsekedi Khama, who expressed his frustration over the failure by his regional peers to attend the conference and add their voice, saying Africa lacked the will to combat poaching effectively.
“It is up to Africa to say no, we have to say no, but as long as the political will is not there and as long as corruption is in place I can guarantee you, it is going to take longer than we would like, because you will always find people who will find an opportunity to carry on whether they are in the country or out of the country – that is the challenge,” he said.
“So really what I am saying to you is that political will, (fighting) corruption, these two things, if they’re in place we would not be having the problem we have today. The message that we need to deliver that there is no tolerance at all for poaching or for syndicates you know or for corruption. There should be no tolerance whatsoever.”
In real terms according to UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, poverty is strongly linked to levels of elephant poaching.
To buttress that, when Zimbabwe lost 115 elephants through cyanide poisoning at waterholes in Hwange National Park, it was established that villagers could not let their children die of hunger when they could make money from helping poachers.
It is time Zimbabwe seriously takes note of the dire warnings over the booming illegal wildlife trade that threatens the survival of elephants and rhinos, among other endangered species.
Kasukuwere must therefore underline his commitment to pledges made in Botswana.
True, important battles are being won as curative efforts increase in quality and quantity, but overall, the picture remains deeply worrying.
Is it not appalling that Zimbabwe looks like it can’t show any headway whatsoever in slowing the slaughter.
Because wildlife resources are being stolen from communities on a scale never seen before, this threatens the very existence of some of the world’s most iconic and treasured species.
Some of our elephants have been forced to flee political unrest over the years to neighbouring countries.
In our case, lots of our elephants are essentially political refugees, fleeing persecution in some parts of the country. Hence, we must commit to saving endangered species – despite financial pressures.
Fully conscious that our economy is struggling to recover from its political downturn, the country cannot use this as an excuse for inaction as there will be a bigger price to pay in future.