Zimbabwe's Wildlife Decimated by Economic Crisis

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Policy Disaster

Until now there had only been anecdotal evidence of widespread slaughter on the private ranches that were occupied under President Mugabe's controversial land redistribution program.

That policy, implemented in 2000, is seen as a central reason for Zimbabwe's economic collapse.

Mugabe argued at the time that the reforms would reverse decades of discrimination and help Zimbabwe shed its colonial past, when wealthy white farmers snapped up some of the country's best land.

Yet once he expelled the farmers and subdivided the land, the farms that made Zimbabwe Africa's breadbasket collapsed, and some of the country's most basic foodstuffs became impossible to find.

And as a result, the subsistence farmers who moved in—often dubbed "war veterans" by the regime—began to hunt wildlife that had thrived, and in many cases, been protected on the ranches.

Government regulations meant to shield the animals have been disobeyed, and wildlife officials have been forced to focus their limited resources on Zimbabwe's national parks and reserves, where the damage is less severe.

According to the task force, Zimbabwe had 620 private game farms before the land seizures began, but now has 14. And of 14 conservancies before 2000, only one remains.

Snare Traps

Because of the proliferation of snares, many of the animals on these former ranches have been maimed, report author Rodrigues said.

"They're telling the world they want the tourists to come back, but the tourists aren't going to come back because most of the animals you see nowadays have amputated legs," he said. "It's just like a rehabilitation center."

The report acknowledges that the findings are still preliminary—many of the farmers whose land was seized have left the country, so in some cases the group had to rely on hazy reports from people still near the former ranches.

"We are not claiming to 'know' how much wildlife has been lost," the report said. "We have just tried to make the most accurate estimate possible with very limited data to work with."

Still, the trend is a disaster, because Zimbabwe once had some of the world's most progressive and successful conservation policies.

Elephant populations there have boomed, and on conservation areas that are strictly monitored and controlled, rhinoceros populations are growing. (Related: "5-Country Conservation Area Would Aid Africa's Largest Elephant Herd" [April 4, 2007].)

Matter of Survival

Part of the reason for the decline is that poachers from neighboring countries have entered Zimbabwe to hunt its animals. Another is the booming trade in bush meat.

"It's a matter of survival," said George Kampamba, coordinator of the conservation nonprofit WWF's African Rhino Program. "For people to really survive, now that poverty levels are so high, they have to do what they're doing—which is the bush meat trade."

The government too has turned on the animals. Rodrigues said the government slaughtered a hundred elephants last year so their meat could be served as part of Independence Day celebrations.

And his group has also reported that Zimbabwe recently sold ivory to China in exchange for military hardware.

Wildlife destruction has become so severe that even Zimbabwe's authoritarian government is acknowledging mistakes.

"Errors that were made were not intentional," Environment Secretary Margaret Sangarwe told the state-owned Herald newspaper.

"An area of concern is the resettling of people in some areas meant for wildlife rearing, and ensuring that our wildlife is safe."

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