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Zimbabwe police have launched an investigation into former first lady Grace Mugabe over allegations that she headed a poaching and smuggling syndicate which illegally exported tonnes of elephant tusks, gold, and diamonds from the country, the Telegraph can reveal.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president of Zimbabwe, sanctioned an “urgent” investigation into Mrs Mugabe’s activities after “very strong” evidence was uncovered by Adrian Steirn, an Australian photo journalist, a senior official in the presidential administration said.
Mrs Mugabe wielded significant power in Zimbabwean politics until her husband Robert was ousted in a soft coup last November.
She was named as the alleged mastermind of the illegal operation by two suspected poachers who were later arrested in a police sting after trying to sell Mr Steirn tusks in February. She has not yet been charged.
Zimbabwe is home to about 86,000 elephants, or the second largest population in Africa, according to a census published in 2016. That figure represented a 10 per cent drop in numbers since 2005.
Although the population is considered healthy in the north-west of the country, losses have been heavy in other parts.
About 900 elephants were lost to poachers between 2013 and 2016, nearly 250 of them poisoned with cyanide or shot.
Mrs Mugabe’s name was linked to large-scale wildlife trafficking following a four-month investigation by Mr Steirn, who posed as a customer for contraband ivory in order to infiltrate the smuggling and poaching networks preying on the country’s national parks.
In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, Mr Steirn said he decided to launch the investigation after hearing rumours about Mrs Mugabe’s complicity in trade during several years reporting on wildlife crime in Africa.
“For years I’ve been documenting the frontline poachers who end up serving 20 years for shooting a giraffe. Meanwhile, she was taking billions of dollars out of the country,” he said.
“If they charge and arrest her, and she goes to jail for wildlife crimes, that will change the dynamic of the entire perception of wildlife trafficking across Africa,” he said.
Undercover footage filmed by Mr Steirn and seen by the Telegraph shows several sources, including suspected poachers and intelligence, wildlife and aviation officials, describing how Mrs Mugabe smuggled ivory poached in national parks or looted from government warehouses out of the country by exploiting an exemption from airport security screening as First Lady.
They include Fariken Madzinga, 48, a registered dealer of ivory who describes in the footage how he also runs a syndicate that handles both poached ivory and tusks stolen from the government’s secure stockpiles of wildlife products on behalf of Mrs Mugabe.
In conversations with Mr Steirn recorded before his arrest, Mr Madzinga described how he relies on “the president and first lady” to get contraband tusks out of the country.
“In order for it to pass through customs, the goods of the First Lady were not searched. She had immunity from the government,” he added. “Even a cardboard box and is part of the first lady, there is nobody who is going to open this,” he says.
Mr Madzinga and Tafadzwa Pamire, 36, were arrested in a police sting after trying to sell Mr Steirn tusks they said had been procured from poachers.
They were carrying six large tusks worth more than £16,000 as unprocessed ivory when they were apprehended while carrying out the sale on February 15, according to court documents.
They are due to appear in court on April 9 charged with illegal possession of raw tusks.
Mr Steirn, who will be the main state witness in the trial, said he has received death threats warning him not to testify.
Documents seen by the Telegraph suggest that an airport security loophole also extended to cargo shipments marked as assigned to the First Lady, allowing a much larger scale of traffic than would be possible in personal luggage.
An Airport Security Protocol (ASP), issued by the Mugabe government’s Civil Aviation Authority, and printed on its letterhead, instructs the cargo department and all airport security not to scan or search any consignment connected to the first family or their entourage.
While it is usual practice to exempt diplomats and heads of state, as well as immediate family members travelling with them, from searches, it is highly unusual to extend that waiver to unaccompanied cargo or beyond immediate family members.
Christopher Mutsvangwa, a special adviser to Mr Mnangagwa, said the president was aware of the allegations and had sanctioned the investigation into high-profile figures including Mrs Mugabe based on the information revealed by Mr Steirn.
“We have commenced a full inquiry in addition to ongoing investigations into the recent seizure of a large quantity of ivory that was bound for an overseas destination,” Mr Mutsvangwa, a former leader of Zimbabwe’s powerful union of War Veterans and a long standing critic of Mrs Mugabe within the ruling Zanu PF party, told the Telegraph.
“The government of Zimbabwe will seek answers from all parties who have been implicated in this matter, including former First Lady Grace Mugabe and former Minister of Environment Saviour Kasukuwere,” he said in an interview in Moscow, where he was an observer at last week’s Russian presidential election.
Oppah Muchinguri, the minister of environment said in a statement: “Earlier this month an investigative journalist brought to my attention allegations of corruption, fraud, mining in national parks, and illegal trafficking of ivory, horn, and other items being conducted by individuals associated with the former administration.
“The evidence was strong enough for me to raise it with President Mnangagwa. As a result the president took the step of dissolving the entire Zimparks board on 22 February,” she added, referring to the agency responsible for managing the country’s national parks.
Mr Mustvangwa said there is currently no suggestion that Mr Mugabe himself, who is now 94, is implicated in the smuggling ring.
However, he added that there was mounting evidence that the gang included high-ranking members of Mr Mugabe’s security apparatus and that the systemic smuggling also involved rhino horn, diamonds, and gold.
“Ivory is just one part of it,” he said.
In his last five years in office, Mr Mugabe regularly travelled for medical treatment to Singapore using Air Zimbabwe’s only long-haul aircraft, a Boeing 767. He was often accompanied by Mrs Mugabe.
He last visited the city state in December, a month after he left office. In the same day he flew out of Harare, on December 11, a consignment of 200kg of ivory destined for Kuala Lumpur was seized at Harare international airport.
While Mrs Mugabe’s alleged customers have not been named, Mr Mutswanga said the buyers are assumed to be organised criminal groups operating out of China and Malaysia.
Such gangs have been linked to multi-million dollar poaching operations across Africa and have a reputation for extreme violence.
In August last year Wayne Lotter, a South African conservationist investigating ivory smuggling networks, was shot dead in Tanzania. And last month Esmond Bradley Martin, an American environmentalist who was regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on the illegal wildlife trade, was stabbed to death at his home in Nairobi.
The exposure of top Zimbabwean officials in the illegal wildlife trade will come as little surprise to conservationists, who say official corruption, including cooperating with major organised crime networks, has fuelled poaching across the continent.
“Corruption is key all along the supply chain,” said Lucy Vigne, a leading researcher into the smuggling of illegal ivory and rhino horn from Africa.
“Officials may turn a blind eye for bribes or collude with the criminal traders in illegal wildlife trade activities themselves.”
Investigators and campaigners with knowledge of anti-poaching operations said Mrs Mugabe’s name began to crop up in an international effort to expose the powerful African political figures involved in ivory and rhino horn trafficking several months ago.
“There has been a concerted international effort to bring down the high-level trafficking networks of which Grace is an example,” said Frank Pope, chief executive officer of Save The Elephants, a leading conservation charity.
“She is not alone in being a senior figure involved in ivory trafficking, not alone in this current crisis and not alone in the historical perspective of the ivory trade. There have been other senior figures who’ve lined their pockets substantially from the ivory trade.”
Mrs Mugabe did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
Father Fidelis Mukonori, who is close to the Mugabe family and was a mediator during the coup last November, said he discussed the allegations with Mrs Mugabe and she said she was “unconcerned. She said it doesn’t matter.”
Mrs Mugabe, 52, grew notorious for her profligate spending during her nearly 20 years as First Lady of Zimbabwe, despite having no obvious commensurate source of income.
A Telegraph investigation last year found that she spent an estimated £10 million on a clutch of luxury properties in Zimbabwe and South Africa between 2014 and 2017. She has not explained how she funded the purchases.
Mr Mugabe’s salary as president was about $20,000 a month. He and Mrs Mugabe still live at the Blue Roof, the palatial Harare residence they built while he was president.