Zimbabwe’s land grabs endanger elephants

via Africa land grabs endanger elephants | The Jakarta Post by Richard Lardner, The Associated Press, Washington April 20 2014

Political and military elites are seizing protected areas in one of Africa’s last bastions for elephants, putting broad swaths of Zimbabwe at risk of becoming fronts for ivory poaching, according to a nonprofit research group’s report that examines government collusion in wildlife trafficking.

Zimbabwe has maintained robust elephant populations compared with other countries on the continent. But economic penalties imposed by the United States and Europe have led Zimbabweans with ties to President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party to find new methods of making money. The report, set for release Monday, says they may be turning to elephants’ highly valued ivory tusks.

Zimbabwe’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, commissioned the report from Washington-based C4ADS to better understand the role organized crime and corrupt government officials play in ivory trafficking across Africa, said Adam Roberts, Born Free USA’s chief executive officer.

Wildlife trafficking long has been viewed as a conservation issue, but it has exploded into an illicit global economy monopolized by mafia-like syndicates and enabled by high-level bureaucrats and powerful business interests. The report describes a toxic combination of conflict, crime and failures of governance throughout Africa that threatens to wipe out the continent’s dwindling elephant herds.

China, the world’s largest market for ivory, is compounding the threat, the report said. Chinese companies have won lucrative contracts in Zimbabwe for mining and construction projects near remote elephant habitats, bringing waves of workers and new roads that can be exploited by East Asian crime organizations, the report said.

North of Zimbabwe, in central Africa, an estimated 23,000 elephants, or roughly 60 each day, were killed last year. A pound of elephant tusk sells for about $1,500 on the black market. That’s more than double the price just five years ago. Ivory is used to make carved ornaments and trinkets.

Rhinoceroses also are heavily poached for their horns, which some Asian cultures believe contain medicinal properties.

TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, says there are between 47,000 and 93,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. The gap is due to the fact that full-fledged surveys of the animals have not been carried out since 2007, said Richard Thomas, the organization’s spokesman.

Across Africa, there are close to 500,000 elephants, a fraction of the nearly 10 million that roamed there just 100 years ago.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month signaled its worries about the future of Zimbabwe’s herds in a decision blocking the importation of African elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe during 2014. Noting the cyanide poisoning of 300 elephants last year in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, the agency said it has “significant concerns about the long-term survival of elephants in Zimbabwe.”

The ban also applies to Tanzania.

The Obama administration in February published a national strategy for combating the multibillion-dollar poaching industry, relying on many of the same tactics used against terrorist organizations and drug cartels. The plan outlines a “whole of government approach” that includes working with other countries to increase the number of investigations and arrests, using high-tech gear to identify poaching hot spots, and targeting the bank accounts of wildlife traffickers and the corrupt bureaucrats who assist them.

“Our findings shine a bright light on Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sudan, and Kenya, where poachers move across borders with near impunity, slaughter elephants with complete disregard, and use the ivory to fund violent operations across the continent,” said Born Free USA’s Roberts. “Global leaders cannot stand by while the human tragedy and poaching crisis continue.

Zimbabwe, the report said, could become a poaching hot spot with little warning.

Mugabe has led the country since independence from British rule in 1980. In his early years in power, he expanded public education and health services, making Zimbabwe a beacon on the continent. But Zimbabwe’s economy went into meltdown in 2000 after Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms, leading to the collapse of the agriculturally based economy, once the region’s breadbasket.

More than a decade ago, the U.S. and the European Union began imposing sanctions against Mugabe and members of his inner circle for human rights abuses, public corruption, and vote-rigging. The penalties set strict business and travel bans. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has blamed the sanctions for Zimbabwe’s economic woes.

Among the areas in jeopardy is Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy, a 1,000-square-mile collection of unfenced wildlife reserves that is home to most of the country’s elephants and rhinoceroses. Land reform policies have allowed politically connected people to receive hunting permits and land leases in the conservancy, according to C4ADS.

“Many have histories of exploitative business practices, muscling into firms, stripping them of all value, and moving on, which creates a high risk of systematic poaching on seized lands,” the report said.

The lack of transparency into the inner workings of Mugabe’s government makes it difficult to establish direct links between government loyalists and their interests in wildlife areas. The report said ownership is often masked through associates, family members, and shell companies.

Using data-mining software developed by Palantir, a technology company in California, C4ADS named 18 people involved in what the report describes as the “political/military takeover of Save Valley Conservancy.”

They include Maj. Gen. Engelbert Rugeje, the inspector general of Zimbabwe’s defense forces. Rugeje is not on the sanctions list maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe has long been aware of concerns over Rugeje.

In the fall of 2009, he was accused of threatening to shoot a Zimbabwean lawmaker who had criticized the general for using soldiers to intimidate voters, according to an embassy cable published by the Wikileaks website. Rugeje previously was reported to the embassy for orchestrating violence in parts of Zimbabwe where candidates who ran against Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party were elected to parliament.

A government official reported to be involved in the distribution of wildlife areas to Mugabe loyalists disputed the allegations.

“If I repeat a lie 20 times, does that make it factual?” Francis Nhema told The Associated Press last week.

Nhema leads the ministry tasked by Mugabe with putting in place a program to take over 51 percent control of remaining foreign and white-owned businesses and assets. He formerly ran the environment ministry. He has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2003.

Embassy officials in Harare privately voiced misgivings about Nhema following a 2010 meeting he had with Charles Ray, then the U.S. ambassador. Nhema denied that high-ranking Zimbabwean officials were involved in poaching activities and he rejected reports that land within the Save Valley was being commandeered for personal gain.

“He is soft-spoken and comes across as reasonable,” reads a February 2010 cable, marked confidential. “He is, however, at least somewhat disingenuous. … In short, he toes the ZANU-PF line.”


Associated Press writer Tendai Musiya in Johannesburg contributed to this report.


Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rplardner (**)



  • comment-avatar
    John Thomas 8 years ago

    Our pathetic government cannot do anything right. Our army is lead by corrupt thieves. I suspect that as they are tested in the immediate future they will fail every test.

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    John Thomas, let me tell you, are you happy with those white farmers to remain there, or you are the ones who said, Mugabe is removing those whom we used to work for, to whom we are supposed to work now!
    If the people of Zimbabwe are handed over, what is left, get your land back while some of them said, our masters were removed, is that the right thing to say!

    • comment-avatar
      Reverend 8 years ago

      Umaari, what are you talking about?!! Are you even sober? I think you may need some help man!

  • comment-avatar
    Gomogranny 8 years ago

    Once they have killed every other part of the economy they then prey on the last remaining heritage – wildlife. All the years of toil by our best Conservation minds will be shattered – destroyed in months – by the greed of these people. They are criminals every one of them.

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    Brian 8 years ago

    Sharon Pincott has given up on her drive to save the President’s Elephants. She has a web site. Guess McGarbage is asleep at the wheel as usual. Zim is descending into failed state status and the kleptomaniacs ransacking her think there is a future whereby they will keep their stolen wealth. We have their names, their stolen assets and their facilitators. Beware, Zanu thieves.

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    Reverend 8 years ago

    It is sad to say that this USFish& Wild Life decision to close sport hunted ivory into the US is a major step in the anihalation of Zimbabwe’s elephant herd. It will take out about 80% of the anti poaching force which are employed by the safari operators in Zimbabwe and the National Parks do not have the ability to police the poaching throughout the country,as well as the fact that their bosses will all be involved in the poaching syndicates. So bye bye zims elephants…
    I was wondering who did the elephant count in 1914 (1st world war) to find 10 million elephant in Africa…what a lot of balony.
    The fact of the matter is that there is an election coming up in the US and their pathetic president is trying to make himself poular with the greenies to get their vote. His ratings are the lowest ever for any president in the US,39% and dropping fast!!
    There is no doubt that the cheffs under the banner of mugabe are going to turn to ivory now as the whistle blowers in the safari sector are blown away.
    Google the letter to USFish and Wild life by Ron Thompson who was a warden of the real National Parks of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe….It is brilliant, really factual.
    Jesus has risen! Happy Easter everyone.

  • comment-avatar

    This was a time I celebrated the sacrifice Jesus made for us, so I was not going to comment this weekend.@ UMAARI has forced me to comment.Where this man comes from I still do not know. What I do suspect is that for him to be commenting here he must be an AFFHOC. That is an AFRICAN FUGITIVE FROM HIS OWN COUNTRY. Why I say this is that he should give us an example what they are doing where he comes from so that we can take an example. Why he is so passionate about Africa when he wont tell us where he is from. Is he from Rwanda? Maybe from Ethiopia? DRC? SOMALIA? Come on UMAARI tell us. Sudan?

    • comment-avatar
      Reverend 8 years ago

      I was going to say “the shabeen” but I wont, I will keep that to myself….
      Happy Easter Doc, the Lord bless you Brother

  • comment-avatar

    Doc he is a clown that has access to the power of the Internet. Only he has exposed himself. AFFHOC HA HA HA HA. Nailed it Doc.

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    To you too REV. You guys are doing a Stirling job.

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    I feel sorry for my people and what we are doing to our Continent.

    Before long, there won’t be anything left. Do we even think of future generations?
    We are not building but destroying: the economy, the infrastructure, the social fabric, our forests and now our animal heritage.

    Meanwhile our leaders go around in posh limousines and expensive suits blindly leading us down this path.

    • comment-avatar
      Reverend 8 years ago

      I feel your grief Ngoto….pray for your people…

      • comment-avatar
        Gomogranny 8 years ago

        In the absence of action, PRAYER is a good excuse to carry on and do nothing. Sorry Reverend – PRAYER will not dislodge these guys. GOD has sent them to test our actions not our faith…..