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Hunger and Economic Chaos Threaten Zimbabwe's Wildlife


In some parts of Africa, wildlife is being destroyed not only by poachers and hunters, but also by hungry people in rural areas.

Such is the case with Zimbabwe, where experts say there’s been a widespread slaughter of wild animals since the government began redistributing white-owned land – including game reserves and conservancies – five years ago. Under the program, the government handed over land owned by white commercial farmers to landless blacks and to government elites with little or no training in ranching or farming. Militias, or “war veterans,” connected to the state occupied much of the land. They also occupied privately owned game reserves and conservancies that had been encouraged by the government years earlier to protect wildlife.

Johnny Rodrigues is the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force in Harare: “Government did state they weren’t going to interfere with the wildlife and the [white-owned] game ranches, but with [political] pressure [growing to expropriate white farmland], the government decided the only way to solve the problem was to take all the white-owned land back and turn it into state land. Today they are offering a 25-year lease and all the game farms for the indigenous and local people who want it. But they have not compensated the game ranchers for [the improvement they made]. It will be hard because all of the fencing has been taken down and people are using it as snares.”

Many Zimbabweans suffer from food shortages. The government-backed “Operation Nyama” allows the police and defense force to alleviate hunger by hunting “bushmeat,” or wildlife. Last year, the government instructed national park rangers to shoot 10 elephants for barbecue meat for the festivities marking Zimbabwe’s 25 years of independence. Park staffers are permitted to kill a given number of animals per week as rations. Game is also used to feed the army and defense forces.

The government attributes hunger in part to the lack of rain. But Rodrigues says, “There has been a slight drought, but through all the years I’ve lived here there have been droughts – one back in the 90’s…. You can blame drought but [it’s a different story] when you look at the record of rainfall…. This year we’ve had plenty of rain in some areas [for example] where there is a record of 900 millimeters of rain (rather than the normal 300 millimeters)…. Somewhere along the line they have to face the facts and say we are not doing things properly.

Before the land reform program, there were about 240 farms involved in the wildlife industry. Some of these were wildlife only, while others included wildlife, beef cattle and crops. Of these 240 farms, 84 were registered with National Parks as game ranches or conservancies. Today, there are about 14 left. One ranch in Matebeleland, Gourlays, was emptied of its six thousand animals; poachers killed many of its 50 endangered black rhino.

With regard to the beef industry, before the land reform program, Zimbabwe had 2.5 million head of cattle. Today, only 90,000 remain; Rodrigues says that explains why the local people are resorting to eating bush meat.

Zimbabwe’s 14 national parks are also said to be in disrepair – without money to operate pumps to provide underground water to animals living there. Vice President Joyce Mujuru blames the situation on a lack of foreign currency, which is used to buy maize for the hungry and not to repair broken machinery or for gas to operate the pumps. Some regional newspapers say Zimbabwean elephants and other wildlife have been crossing the border into Zambia to flee poaching.

In recent weeks, the government has announced steps to strengthen its lucrative safari-hunting sector. The government has suspended hunting in some of the country’s remaining conservancies, saying it wanted to improve the quality of lions and other trophy [animals].

VOA has contacted the government of Zimbabwe; however, we have not yet received a response.

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