Jenman Safaris very own Zimbabwe Operations Manager, Charles Brightman, was interviewed on Carte Blanche… Carte Blanche is one of the leading programs in South Africa – they deal with topical news, tough stories and factual information “you have the right to see it all”. On the 17th Oct 2010 Carte Blanche broached the topic of poaching in Zimbabwe which is a very tough story…
Zimbabwe’s often violent land reform programme has made world news over the past ten years. And, as law and order has deteriorated, it’s been a free-for-all for poachers.
We met up with several dedicated individuals fighting to conserve Zimbabwe’s endangered fauna.
Charles Brightman (Vic Falls Anti-Poaching Unit): ‘There’s no hiding that Zimbabwe’s been through some hardships over the last ten years or so. And people have capitalised on that… harsh economic times, political instability as it were. But it makes us that much more stronger to say, ‘Right, enough is enough, and we’re not going to let this happen; and we’re going to do what we can, as best as we can, to fight it.”
Justin van der Merwe (Denlynian Anti-Poaching Unit): ‘Ja it’s disheartening, but we’re trying, we’re fighting to protect that nature.’
Working within the Zambezi National Park, Charles Brightman runs the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit.
National Parks in Zimbabwe are estimated to have lost 40% of their wildlife to poaching since the land grab began in 2000.
The Victoria Falls National Park has been no exception.
But there are efforts to curb it. The Vic Falls Anti-Poaching unit has been working with Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority, 24/7.
Charles: ‘Seeing this snare [on screen] broken in such a manner, that means that there is a buffalo or a kudu, some creature walking around with a piece of snare still attached to it, either around its neck or leg.’
Animals caught in snares die a slow cruel death. By collecting these snares, anti-poaching units can at least prevent some misery.
Charles: ‘We removed just over 20 000 wire snares. So, if you reflect on that, that is a huge positive.’
Johnny Rodrigues is Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, and has been documenting wildlife poaching in Zimbabwe over the past decade.
Johnny Rodrigues (Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force): ‘It’s hard to swallow, actually living here and seeing the devastation that goes on – from the wildlife, the environmental issues, the ecosystems, the trees, deforestation.’
Private game ranches have been as hard hit as the national parks. There were once 645 game ranches. Now there are about five.
Johnny: ‘Because of this land grab, a lot of the politicians have actually got their gang of merry men, trying to intimidate the few remaining game ranches. They poach the animals, do what they like. They sell the meat.’
One of the last remaining game ranches is South African-owned Denlynian, just north of Beit Bridge.
Justin van der Merwe runs the anti-poaching unit there. He’s trying to protect the remaining wildlife from the so-called ‘war veterans’, who have settled on private land.
Justin: ‘If they do take it, that’s all they can think about is just to kill the remaining animals. They just want the meat, either for their consumption or for sale.’
Once war vets enter a property, there’s no stopping them or the surrounding communities during the ensuing lawlessness.
They’ve been helping themselves on and off since 2002.
The most recent invasion began in March this year. And since then, numbers of impala, eland and zebra have dropped dramatically on Denlynian.
War vets enter property on the pretext of using it for agriculture. But Justin doubts the claim that this land, which lies in Zimbabwe’s lowest rainfall area, is to be used for farming.
Justin: ‘This was cleared in 2007, but as you can see it’s now three years past, and they have not done anything.’
The Mopani Forest that once stood here is gone forever, and the deforestation on Denlynian Game Ranch continues to this day.
Nationally this has also been a major issue.
Johnny: ‘Zimbabwe’s lost 40 million hectares [due to] deforestation because of this new land reform that they’ve got.’
For the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, the issue is not the war veteran invaders, but impoverished locals who live within the national park.
Charles: ‘Within the town there’s a population of I would say about 50 000-odd people. So, of course, you’ve got a human-wildlife conflict.’
We came across a unit that had been tracking spoor for two hours. And they were hot on the poachers’ heels.
Man 1 (Ranger): ‘We’ve come across a spoor of two poachers, over.’
A final run through the bush, and they swoop on a wood poacher and his family, who are immediately arrested.
Man 2 (Wood poacher): ‘I came here to fetch the firewood, because where I stay there is no electricity. I don’t have money to buy firewood, but I know what I’m doing is not good. And it’s not in the law of this country.’
This poacher may have been caught with wood, but he could have been setting snares too.
Man 2 (Ranger):’ Do you see these snares? They were just by this side – these snares. So we don’t know, maybe it’s you, you’ve come to check your snares with your wife. Now we don’t know, we don’t know.’
Charles: ‘To date since we’ve been in operation, we’ve been able to arrest and hand over to the authorities just over 550 poachers. Now, these are the more hardened poachers. We’ve lost track of your lower scale poachers, as it were, like wood poachers.’
This may seem like a high arrest rate, but convictions in Zimbabwe are low.
According to the wildlife monitoring network, TRAFFIC, only 3% of rhino poachers arrested in Zimbabwe are sentenced.
Charles: ‘It happened often where we would have poachers actually laughing at us and saying, ‘Well, we’ll see you back in the bush in a couple of days.’ They pay their fine and off they go.’
Wanele Kwanele is Senior Parks Officer at the Zambezi National Park, which manages the adjacent Victoria Falls Park.
Wanele Kwanele (Senior Wildlife Officer): ‘Now the difference is you can even be sentenced to jail for the same offence that one could pay five dollars.’
But Johnny Rodrigues is sceptical about the increased fines.
Johnny: ‘It’s alright bringing all these laws in, but who’s going to enforce it and who’s going to police it? That is the question.’
The United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has accused Zimbabwe’s security forces of poaching rhinos and elephants.
Johnny: ‘We had a herd of 600 buffalo that used to roam in the Kariba area. They’re down to 45. The elephants have been shot. Some of them have been fed to the crocodile farm, but the majority of it was to feed the army. And I believe the government wants to keep the soldiers happy and that’s one way of doing it, because we haven’t got the cattle to supply the meat to the forces.’
Not only has there been State-sanctioned poaching, but individual park rangers have also been implicated in illegal hunting.
Wanele says measures have been taken to address corruption at the Zambezi National Park.
Wanele: ‘There has been some game rangers getting involved in poaching, and we have… all of them have been called and they have been discharged.’
At Denlynian Game Ranch, where Justin and owner Ian Ferguson are in a stand-off against invaders, indications are that this is a Zanu-PF-sanctioned land grab.
Justin: ‘I presume it’s someone in the government, but I can’t… I’m not sure who.’
Johnny: ‘There’s some ministers involved, one of them is the MP for Beit Bridge East who’s involved behind the whole issue. They say, ‘It’s land for the people.’ It’s not. It’s just the greed that’s taken over.’
We contacted MP Mohadi who is also co-minister for Home Affairs, but he said he had no comment for the media.
Today Denlynian is littered with carcasses of animals like zebra, poached for their valuable skins.
Justin: ‘It’s very heart-breaking because they just take the hide and they leave the meat. And the meat… and to me it’s just a waste.’
Recent arrests in Limpopo province have highlighted the role of South African hunters in poaching in Zimbabwe.
Johnny: ‘There’s a lot of the unethical South Africans that come in here, they’re paying the poachers to shoot animals. They don’t utilise the meat, they just take the skins.’
Easy pickings if they’re caught in snares like these back at the Victoria Falls National Park, despite the best efforts of the anti-poaching unit.
Injured animals used to be shot to put them out of their misery, but these days veterinarians are called in to dart and treat wounded wildlife.
Charles: ‘To date its close on 150 animals, ranging from elephants to warthogs, that we’ve been able to treat in such a manner and save them from that horrible death and reintroduce them back into the wild.’
While there’s hope for wildlife at Vic Falls, things are much bleaker at Denlynian, where the struggle goes on to hold onto one of Zimbabwe’s last game ranches.
Justin van: ‘We want to fight for this because it’s heritage; it’s the country’s heritage.’
With Zimbabwe’s natural bounty hard-hit by the last decade of turmoil, it’s reassuring that not everyone has thrown in the towel.
Johnny: ‘We’ve been accumulating all the statements, images, evidence, so that when law and order returns, all these greedy and unscrupulous people from government officials to whoever’s been involved to be accountable. And whatever proceeds they took under the unethical manner, we can actually hold them accountable.’