Zimbabwe – A report commissioned by animal advocacy group, Born Free USA and released by C4ADS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide, has revealed that “across Zimbabwe, economic operations on wildlife range areas are being seized by Zimbabwe’s political-military elites”. In this latest chapter of land seizures the small clique of Zimbabwe’s ruling party politicians and associates who own nearly 40% of the 14 million hectares of land seized from commercial farms over the past decade are now turning to the more profitable safari and tourism companies and conservancies. This new trend, says the report, has coincided “with an upsurge in poaching and overhunting”, especially in ivory and rhino horn.
Zimbabwe also has extremely close business ties with China. “China is the largest exporter of arms to Zimbabwe”, the report reiterates, “and the cash-strapped Mugabe government is extremely dependent on Chinese aid and investment, and has allowed large Chinese investment in natural resource projects.” Earlier this year, Zimbabwe began accepting the Chinese Yuan as legal tender and, of course, there are allegations that ivory has also flown to China through the Chinese Embassy in Harare and the Harare International Airport.
Zimbabwe’s elephant and rhino populations are concentrated in 3 main areas across the country: The Save Valley Conservancy (a collection of 24 unfenced wildlife reserves) hosts a substantial proportion of Zimbabwe’s elephant populations as well as the majority of its rhinos, and along with Chiredzi and Gonarezhou National Parks, is located in the low country of Masvingo along the borders with Mozambique and South Africa. In Matabaleland North, along the borders with Botswana and Zambia, is the Hwange National Park and surrounding conservancies – home to the largest Zimbabwean elephant population including the flagship Presidential Herd – while further north in the Zambezi Valley along the border with Zambia is the Mana Pools elephant ecosystem. It is around these areas that are witnessing a sharp spike in land seizures. ‘The general attitude,’ the report goes on to say, is ‘perhaps best expressed by Masvingo Governor Titus Maluleke, another forcibly imposed beneficiary of Save Valley conservancies: “We are not interested in wildlife, we do not want to learn about the business. We want cash.”’
Earlier this week the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said in a press release: “The information that is available raises significant concerns about the long-term survival of elephants in Zimbabwe.” Citing questionable management practices and lack of effective law enforcement, the United States Service has therefore suspended imports of sport hunted elephant trophies. It went on to state that “Given the current situation in Zimbabwe the Service does not believe that the benefits of sport hunting will be realised…killing elephants, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that continue towards the recovery of the species.”
Americans make up the majority of trophy hunters in Zimbabwe, exporting an average of 160 trophies every year. But there has been a long lack of transparency surrounding the allocation of land and hunting licenses with concession awarded to those politically well-connected – most of who are without any prior experience in wildlife management.
Zimbabwe’s Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Walter Mzembi, says the decision by the USFWS to ban elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe required the country to re-assess its empowerment policies. In 2013, top government and military officials were reportedly awarded offer letters for Save Valley Conservancy at the expense of the communities living alongside the largest man-made wildlife sanctuary in the country. The same was awarded to state land alongside Hwange National Park. But Mzembi was recently quoted in the local press saying the ruling party “politburo cancelled all the offer letters. If anyone still pushes their way, it is illegal. We believe in collective responsibility, so no one holds a valid offer letter vis-à-vis Save Valley Conservancy. We must come up with a business model that promotes development – not to destroy. Tourism is sensitive, let us keep it that way.”
However, it seems that the ‘indigenization’ of the land in the Save Valley continues unabated with Zimbabwe’s Environmental, Water and Climate Minister, Saviour Kasukuwere, contradicting Mzembi. Kasukuwere lambasted the USFWS decision and vowed that the “de-racialization” of wildlife land will carry on.
A similar situation seems to be developing in the Hwange area. The state land bordering the Hwange National Park is being parceled into a series of ‘conservancies’ and ‘acquired’ by private owners, often with political connections. One particular area under dispute is the Kanondo region, a key sector for the Presidential Elephant herd range. In 1990, President Robert Mugabe decreed that the 400 plus elephants that roam the unfenced land outside the reserve should never be hunted or culled.
But in recent months, it appears that government are not only ambivalent to the open flouting of their laws but complicit too. “Zim clearly don’t know how to manage their elephant population, even in this small – but key – area,” says Sharon Pincott founder and driver behind the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project, who has been monitoring and protecting the herd for the past 13 years. “They make no effort at all to stop under-handed hunting. They really don’t seem to ‘get it’ at all, even with their own ‘flagship herd’”.
When asked for comment, Minister Kasukuwere said categorically that, “No hunting is and will be allowed in this area. The practice is unacceptable and we as the Ministry in charge will not stand for any malpractice or abuse of our natural environment.”
Pincott remains unconvinced and says that one new claimant to the land, Elisabeth Pasalk, is going to use the area to hunt the elephants. Pasalk is the sister of Rodger Madungure who owns a large hunting concession and has recently appeared in court over illicit hunting operations. However, Pasalk, who is weeks away from completing a lodge called Gwango on the land has challenged Pincott’s view. “We are a photographic safari operator. We have never [sic] offered elephant hunting, or any sort of hunting at Gwango. We are fully committed to protecting Zimbabwe’s Presidential Elephants and all of the wildlife, flora and fauna in our area. We are also highly concerned about poaching, without our presence on the land, the area was highly vulnerable to poaching and illegal tree harvesting.” She also insisted that the offer-letter for the land was never withdrawn by the Zimbabwe Cabinet. “The State land where we are situated was allocated to my mother in 2011, she is now deceased…Prior to moving to Hwange, I first contacted the Ministry of Lands offices to verify my mother’s land allocation. I also contacted several local government agencies, each of which confirmed that we have the right to be here.”
When asked why Sharon was opposed to the closure of the land, Pasalk said “Sharon does not want anyone else taking care of the Presidential Elephants or sharing positive stories about Zimbabwe.” Pasalk also stated for the record that her brother Rodger “has absolutely no involvement with Gwango. His concession is leased from National Parks in an area quite far away from where Gwango is situated.”
However, the C4ADS report warns such land claims “would not necessarily be a cause for concern by itself, were it not played out against a history of ZANU-PF [ruling party] officials plundering national resources for personal profit. Revenues accrued from the wildlife concessions being seized more often than not go straight into personal and foreign bank accounts, and not towards conservation. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of abuse on seized lands.”
It has not been confirmed or verified whether Pasalk is politically connected or even a Zanu-PF member but other neighbouring parcels of land that have been seized, according the C4ADS report, are ‘owned’ by powerful members of the political elite and Pincott herself believes one does not just ‘inherit’ land unless one is extremely politically well-connected.
In the latest fall-out of current developments in the Hwange area, Pincott has announced that she is permanently halting her work and is leaving Zimbabwe and the Presidential Elephants to their fate. Writing in her ‘final post’ on her Facebook page Sharon said:
“I cannot keep hitting my head against a brick wall year after year, with a lack of care and a lack of respect and understanding with these elephants growing – despite all the efforts – like an invasive weed over a pond smothering everything.”
Pasalk will likely be relieved to see the back of Pincott as she has had to delay the opening of her lodge “due to the damage done to her name…mostly due to Sharon Pincott’s antics” but according to Don Pinnock, a respected South African writer and commentator who has covered the saga of the Presidential Herd since Pincott began in 2001, “Sharon is to elephants what Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall are to gorillas and chimps. She befriended wild elephants, got them to trust her, named them, watched over them and now, seeing the eminent destruction of the ‘protected’ Presidential Herd, she can’t take the strain anymore.”
Pinnock also pointed out that Sharon is “isolated, living alone in a hut, working alone, raising her own funds to be there (she was a successful IT executive in Australia and sunk everything into elephants). She has been threatened with assault and death and, in Zimbabwe’s wild areas, that’s something not to be taken lightly. She’s put up a heroic fight for so, so long and in giving up in the face of such poaching and brutal opposition is a real danger signal for elephants in Zimbabwe and, really, in Africa.”
At the time of writing, unconfirmed reports of gunfire echoed across the Kanondo area. Family members connected to a notorious land-grabber, Obert Mpofu, were reported to be shooting at elephants at a waterhole. Photographs then circulated in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, of elephant carcasses in the backs of lorries. Apparently, they were to feed revellers celebrating 34 years of Zimbabwe’s independence.