'Big Five' massacred, driven to extinction

HARARE – Zimbabwe is home to some of the world’s most iconic wild animals, but rampant poaching might wipe them out forever.

Authorities have often been caught napping as poachers take advantage of the dry period from September to December when watering holes dry up, forcing animals to congregate in small pockets that still hold the precious liquid, thus rendering them extremely vulnerable.

From elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo, the species that make the famed “Big Five”, endangered animals are being massacred chiefly so that a single body part like tasks, pelts or bones can be sold illegally for huge sums of money.

Leading destinations for such products, notably China and America, have banned their formal trade, but illegal and parallel traffic has ballooned. This development has alarmed conservationists and scared authorities.

What thus has long been a steady and remote march to extinction is now a rapidly approaching nightmare.

Elephants and rhinos stand out as the most extremely endangered animals across the rest of Africa as surging demand for their precious horns, mainly in Asia, has put them well on the path to extinction.

Bearing testimony to this is the deaths by cyanide poisoning of hundreds of elephant and other species which speaks to prolongation of an exceptional assault on the country’s wildlife resources.

This climaxed with the killing in 2013 of at least 300 elephants and thousands of other animals inside the vast Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest natural animal sanctuary in which poachers introduced the lethal poison to their already chic operations.

In the wake of the latest killings, Environment, Water and Climate minister, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri rang alarm bells.

Government, she says, was overwhelmed, attributing, this to shortage of manpower and equipment.

Government has spoken of introducing satellite tracking, drones and other sophisticated methods to combat poaching, but implementation had not matched the rhetoric.

The catastrophe calls on the international community and the private sector join the fight to prevent poachers from completely emptying the thickets, Muchinguri-Kashiri recently remarked.

This scale of wildlife poaching needs be put into proper perspective for one to be able to appreciate its gravity.

The United Nations (UN) classifies poaching among elaborate transnational organised crimes.

Representing an estimated $20 billion of the illegal international trade estimated at $1,3 trillion per annum, wildlife poaching is the fourth largest income earning transnational organised crime, coming after drugs, arms and human trafficking.

Conservationists believe that response to poaching should be more militarised, even evidenced by deadly combats between Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) game rangers.

More threateningly, despite the traditional appetite of the Asian market for ivory and rhino horns, there is an emerging trend whereby terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram, Islamic State, al-Shabaab, Taliban and al-Quaeda have turned to trading in ivory as a way of sourcing funds for their operations.

As such, the Elephant League has nicknamed ivory “the white gold of jihad.”

The Elephant League is a web-based international platform for wildlife crime whistleblowers.

A Global Financial Integrity report of 2013 found terrorist groups like al-Shabaab responsible for usage of huge profits from the ivory trade to pay for their violence.

The recent increase in wildlife poaching in Africa has largely been blamed on the increase of such terror groups.

Alarming UN figures show that at the beginning of the 20th century there were millions of African elephants and approximately 100 000 Asian elephants.

Today, there are only about 400 000 African elephants and just 35 Asian elephants left.

In another sobering statistic, in 2014 alone, 946 rhinos were poached in South Africa.

This translates to a rate of two a day.

According to latest figures released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 100 000 elephants were killed between 2011 and 2015 across Africa, which is more than the entire Zimbabwean elephant population currently estimated at 70 000.

In Tanzania, one area closer to al-Shabaab, elephant population plummeted to just over    43 000 between 2009 and 2014.

Mozambique lost half its elephants to remain with only just above 10 000 for the same period.

This is according to a great elephant census conducted by a coalition if wildlife groups last year.

Analysts say the poignant statistics call attention to the deadly combination of gritty criminal gangs, corrupt officials and a strong market for these species combining with willing local communities that do not get any benefit from the existence of these animals save for them being a constant menace.

Clearly, the continent is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter, more than at any time in the previous two decades.

With the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarised, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania recently announced schemes to combat the scourge, introducing a real military reaction to poachers.

Yet, Zimbabwe is still shockingly stuck to the poorly-equipped and outnumbered ZimParks, some of whose rangers have even been complicit in poaching.

Some experts argue that the battle must now be joined on a wider front that targets demand in Asia and logistical and judicial dysfunction in the country.

The temptation to wax lyrical about the ineptitude of ZimParks to fight poaching is big — and to an extent justified — but it is the government’s sluggish pace at comprehending issues that should really be the focus of criticism.

How can , for example, such a blatant assault on national heritage be left to mere game rangers to manage?

In light of this, one would concur with director-general of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Happyton Bonyongwe, who in 2015 declared wildlife poaching and trafficking a national security threat, and not just an environment and conservation concern.

“….there is evidence of fledging linkages between poaching and wildlife trafficking on one hand and transnational organised criminal activities, including terrorism and weapons proliferation on the other hand. There are indications that some of the proceeds from poaching are being used to fund the activities of armed groups and negative forces as well as other destabilising activities,” Bonyongwe told a meeting of African security chiefs in Harare which sought to address the continent’s security issues.

The security chiefs noted that like the Kimberly or Sierra Leone blood diamonds or the plundered minerals from Congo and the conflicted oil reserves of the Sahara and the Niger Delta, ivory has become a conflict resource in Africa as it can easily be converted into cash.

Muchinguri-Kashiri said more was needed to be done it the country was to successfully fight organised crime syndicates moving ivory.

They exploit turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia.

“The vast majority of the illegal ivory is flowing to China, and though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many of them been able to afford it. China’s economic boom has created a vast middle class, pushing the price of ivory to a about $1 000 per kilogramme on the streets, their tasks carved into figurines, chopsticks, bracelets and other luxury items whose demand has skyrocketed in Asian markets, as more of the population accumulates wealth. Unfortunately, there is widespread misinformation, leading many consumers to believe that the item they’re buying came from elephants that died of natural causes,” she said.

Although the toll would no doubt be worse without the anti-poaching efforts, experts say that other aspects of the battle to save wildlife — including improving justice systems and launching efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products — have been given little attention.

Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce (ZCTF) Johnny Rodrigues believes that poaching is being fuelled by poverty and conflict, and demand for ivory is increasingly being met by organised crime networks.

“To ensure that we make the greatest impact, we must focus on connecting, strengthening and supporting the great work of many partners because by working together we can all achieve more. We work closely with communities where elephants range. The fate of elephants ultimately rests in the hands of the people who live among them. That’s why we should focus on community-based conservation and work to find ways to ensure that nature conservation improves people’s lives,” he said.

Zimbabwe is also failing to make full use of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to stop the wildlife carnage.

WWF is an international non-governmental organisation founded in 1961, working in the field of the biodiversity conservation, and the reduction of humanity’s footprint on the environment. It is committed to researching on wildlife conservation technology and has made significant progress in Tanzania and Kenya, yet it is still to be invited to Zimbabwe.

One thing which has been glaringly missing is that of legislation against environmental crimes.

The concept of poaching as an environmental crime first came to the fore in 1998 when environmental scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst defined such crimes as any activity that contravenes the laws and regulations established to protect renewable natural resources including, the illegal harvest of wildlife with the intention of possessing, moving, consuming or trading in it or its body parts.

They considered poaching as one of the most serious threats to the survival of plant and animal populations.

Since then, wildlife biologists and conservationists considered poaching to have a detrimental effect on biodiversity. As populations decline, species are depleted locally, and the functionality of ecosystems is disrupted.

Experts say because the current generations are witnesses to the slaughtering rampage, and still those that seek to protect these animals are left signing endless petitions and begging for the end of trade in their parts — without much heed — there should be a national emergency law now to fight it.

The law, they say, should allow for full use of the state machinery, including the army and all security mechanisms, to fight the scourge.

At an estimated 70 000 strong elephant population, Zimbabawe still has a healthy stock, which, however, makes it a target for crime syndicates; especially given the fast depletion in other countries which are also tightening security.

Comments (4)

(1) Of the "Big 5" the black rhino is the only one that is facing extinction. (2) the security forces are the last ones you want running around national parks with firearms.

Barry - 19 September 2017

Unforseen effects of the 'look east policy' the shortsighted governement did not envisage this scourge. If anything the poaching is organised from the top hence the current regime has no will to stop the poaching.

Sinyo - 19 September 2017

Unforseen effects of the 'look east policy' the shortsighted governement did not envisage this scourge. If anything the poaching is organised from the top hence the current regime has no will to stop the poaching.

Sinyo - 19 September 2017

Zimbabwe - you are HELL ON EARTH for ALL ANIMALS and I pray daily that GOD removes all humans from your EVIL COUNTRY!

Denine Mishoe - 21 September 2017

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