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Zimbabwe Trying to Stop Rhino Poaching

Zimbabwe's wildlife conservation reputation has taken a knock in the past few years and there are fears the recent surge in the poaching of the black rhino will lead to the animal's extinction in the country.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] says there has been an increase in the poaching of the rhino for its horn wherever the animal is found, but the situation is particularly bad in Zimbabwe. VOA asked Raoul du Toit of the Lowveld Rhino Trust, a rhino conservation organization what is driving the poachers.

Du Toit says, "Part of it is obviously the national situation in Zimbabwe where there is reduced law enforcement and part of it is the growing demand for rhino horn, the growing Chinese foot print in Africa, Vietnamese footprint in Africa and the fact that the markets are now really fueling poaching in a very aggressive way."

The rhino horn is believed to have medicinal properties in some Asian countries where it is used as an aphrodisiac and in the Middle East as handles for ceremonial daggers.

Du Toit added that Zimbabwe had seemingly got on top of the situation when a similar surge in poaching happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He said the rhino population had actually increased, but all the good work is being undone and the falling rhino numbers are once again a cause for great concern. He put the number of rhino poached in Zimbabwe since 2006 at as high as 250.

National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority Director General Morris Mtsambiwa agreed the situation is a cause for concern, but said an Emergency Rhino Protection Plan has been put into place to counter the poachers. He says his department; the police, the army and rangers from wildlife conservancies are involved in the program, which he says has been successful.

He pointed to the killing of six poachers since the beginning of the year as proof of action being taken, but he said the country's economic problems are hindering a more effective response to the poaching.

Mtsambiwa says, "You can hear that poachers have come into an area and you want to deploy whether by aircraft or by road but if fuel is not available you have difficulties."

Organizations such as du Toit's Lowveld Rhino Trust are also involved in the relocation of rhinos to areas where it is easier to protect them.

Mtsambiwa said despite all these efforts some Zimbabweans, including those in position of authority, are involved in the poaching. He admitted some rangers from his own department were arrested for their involvement.

A recent article in The Standard, a local weekly newspaper said two Cabinet ministers from President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF Party are being investigated for poaching. The reports said Environmental and Natural Resources Management Minister Francis Nhema admitted senior ZANU-PF officials were implicated in the rhino poaching.

Lowveld Rhino Trust's du Toit also blamed the courts for not being harsh enough on those poachers captured alive for sentences to act as a deterrent, but Mtsambiwa says his department is continually engaging judicial officials and the situation is changing.

Mtsambiwa explains, "We have just had fines for poaching rhinos increased to $120,000 from a mere $1,500. You know when someone does not understand something, they even put more weight than the endangered rhino so these are things that we are explaining to them."

Du Toit and Mtsambiwa agree that while the rhino gets most of the attention because it is endangered, wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe in general is facing many challenges. Du Toit said Zimbabwe once had what he described as a proud record in conservation, but the country is compromising some of its own principles.

He said wild dogs, which are also endangered, are also under threat as they get caught in snares set up by people hunting for meat. Of the animals that do not seem to be attracting that much attention he singled out the zebra.

He explains, "What we have seen particularly in southern Zimbabwe is growing commercial poaching of zebra for their hide. Those hides are smuggled across the Limpopo river to South Africa and marketed in South Africa and exported from South Africa to European markets at pretty high values."

Conservation groups also blame the settlement of landless Zimbabweans in wildlife conservancies under the country's land-reform program for the decline in wildlife conservation. Mtsambiwa admitted this had caused problems, but it is now being remedied.

Mtsambiwa says, "At the beginning of the land reform, huge populations of wildlife were decimated as people moved in and they were just killing wildlife wantonly. But now they are beginning to understand the value and they are assisting in its protection."

But Mtsambiwa cautioned Zimbabwe cannot deal with the poaching problem on its own. To this end, he said, Zimbabwe is collaborating with other countries in the region and beyond to ensure poaching is checked.