Zimbabwe's scandal-hit wildlife industry fears for its future

By: 
dpa

First there was the case of Cecil the lion. Then an elephant killed by another trophy hunter sparked new international outrage. And reports keep emerging of poachers poisoning dozens of elephants with cyanide.

As one scandal after another hits Zimbabwe's wildlife industry, the sector is concerned about its future.

"It is essential that we protect trophy hunting," said Louis Muller, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association.

Critics of the industry want to ban trophy hunting, but Muller and others working in it argue that it brings much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, benefits local people and keeps wild areas wild.

Zimbabwe's wildlife industry comprises ecotourism, which generates more than $200m, and trophy hunting, which brings in $20m, according to the conservation group Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.

The spotlight has been on trophy hunting after US hunter Walter Palmer killed the GPS-collared lion Cecil in July near Hwange, Zimbabwe's largest national park. He reportedly paid $50 000 for the hunt.

Government quotas allow for a certain number of hunting permits for different species, including about 500 for elephants and several dozen for lions annually.

The hunting industry argues that Zimbabwe's herd of about 80 000 elephants is too large and that hunting lions - estimated to number up to 1 600 - helps to preserve the big cats by keeping hunting areas for hunting and preventing human encroachment.

Hunting collared lions is legal, but Palmer's guide and the owner of the hunting ground are facing trial on charges of not having had permission to organise the hunt.

Another safari operator is also facing trial for an allegedly illegal lion hunt by another US citizen.

"Many trophy hunters operate without permits," Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chair Johnny Rodrigues said.

"There are some rogue outfitters out there," Muller admitted, but he said such cases were exceptions.

Legislation requires rangers to accompany hunters on land controlled by the wildlife authority or on communal land while a private landowner "in most cases will send a ranger employed by him", Muller said.

The killing of a large elephant by a German hunter that made headlines in October was legal, the wildlife authority has said, but many Western campaigners demand a ban on the entire practice, arguing that killing animals for trophies is immoral.

The hunting industry benefits 800 000 people living in communities allowing hunts on their land, who get income from the fees paid by operators and hunters, Muller countered.

He did, however, pledge that the hunting industry would increase "self-regulation" to prevent illegal hunts.

Cyanide 

dpa was unable to obtain comment on the issue from the wildlife authority over several weeks.

While the controversy over hunting rages on, the safari industry is worried about dozens of elephant carcasses discovered mainly in the Hwange area.

They had been poisoned by cyanide placed near waterholes - a relatively new method that makes it possible to quietly kill large numbers of animals.

"It will definitely have an impact" on tourism, said Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe.

Poachers reportedly poisoned 300 elephants already in 2013 when photographs of carcasses reduced tourist arrivals in Hwange, tourism operators said.

Deficient controls at mines using cyanide allow poachers to access the poison, Fundira said.

Zimbabwe has only 3 000 to 3 500 rangers, according to the Conservation Task Force and Safari Operators Association. They police more than 80 000km² under conservation. 

The country's economic woes have left it with few resources for the wildlife sector. An unemployment rate of more than 80% in the formal economy deprives the government of tax revenue while the expropriation of white-owned farms starting in 2000 contributed to the West slashing its aid.

Controls are also hampered by corruption as wildlife criminals bribe officials and judges, Rodrigues said.

Many of the poachers are poor rural people selling ivory to middlemen, who pay them a fraction of the black market price, said Tom Milliken from the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic.

Ivory reportedly sells for more than $2 000/kg in China, where it is used for making decorative objects.

Wildlife park employees sometimes collude with poachers. Some have been arrested for smuggling ivory. Press reports implicating rangers and police in cyanide poaching were denied by police.

Environmentalists say rangers even poach antelopes and other animals themselves to eat them.

The government has announced a crackdown on poaching, including hiring more rangers; purchasing equipment, including drones; and imposing stiffer sentences.

"[Rangers'] salaries are very low, and they lack basics like tents and food," Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri said, "so it is easy for them to be tempted into poaching."

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