POLICE in Dete recently arrested two suspects on allegations of killing three elephants by cyanide poisoning. However, the real kingpins behind wildlife gangs remain untouchable, even after previous convictions, due to alleged corruption within the justice system.
Acting on a tip-off, police two weeks ago nabbed Ishmael Sibanda (32) and his accomplice Anold Ndhlovu (26), both from Sihazela Line under Chief Mswigama, Tsholotsho, in a joint crackdown on wildlife murderers with the Parks and Wildlife Authoriry.
The duo confessed to killing two elephants in the Hwange National Park in December 2012 before slaughtering another in August this year, according to a police report obtained by The Herald Business.
They were also charged with contravening the Environmental Management Act for the illegal possession of 6,850 kilogrammes of cyanide, which was buried underground.
Poachers are now killing wildlife by poisoning watering holes or salt pans with cyanide, a deadly and fast acting chemical compound. By using poison, poachers avoid the risk of a gunshot being overheard by rangers. This is an emerging sophistication in wildlife crime that has got authorities and conservationists greatly worried.
At different times, Sibanda and Ndhlovu allegedly sold their six pieces of ivory loot for just $520 to one Busani Moyo – believed to be one of the syndicate’s ring leaders – and to Stanley Alias SaOga. Not much is known about this SaOga, police said, but he’s techno savvy, even in crime. Ndhlovu received $20 as final payment from SaOga through EcoCash – a mobile money based payment platform, which was settled using a third party’s phone, that of Mr Collen Ncube, a teacher at Sihazela Primary School.
In South Africa, a pair of elephant tusks is believed to fetch as much as $16 000, making illegal ivory trade a lucrative business.
Now, the arrested accomplices are just two small-time fish in the swelling pond of wildlife poaching teeming with powerful sharks, and were merely acting on higher orders. And the orders were from suspected kingpins, Busani Moyo and Lukas Nhliziyo, who supplied the cyanide for free. Police confirmed 1,850kg of the poison originated from Moyo and 5kg from Nhliziyo, who would later purchase the ivory.
The two, who remain at large, are believed to be part of a “well-known” and organised criminal syndicate operating in Hwange and the Victoria Falls, terrorising wildlife with impunity. Sources said the Moyo/Nhliziyo “syndicate has National Parks and ZRP details working within their ranks, and we strongly suspect they have corrupted the prosecutors.”
Interestingly, Moyo was convicted for illegal possession of 237kg of ivory last year and senteced to 9 years imprisonment with labour. He is currently walking free, ostensibly on bail pending appeal.
However, it is situations such as Moyo’s that have raised questions on the integrity and competence of Zimbabwe’s justice system in effectively tackling rampant poaching, particularly of the endangered rhino and elephant.
“These syndicates are very brazen, and have been operating with impunity for years now,” sources said, adding if the vice was not contained “Victoria Falls and Hwange will become the epicentre of elephant poisoning and illegal ivory trading.”
Some conservationists recently “arrested” one of the Victoria Falls gang leaders carrying unquantified amounts of cyanide in his vehicle, as he headed towards Deka Safari Area, possibly to poison drinking water.
But “the police here were very accommodating to him, and the prosecutor apparently has refused to take any further action,” alleged one conservationist who cannot be named for fear of victimisation.
“If the law is going to turn a blind eye to poaching, it will not be long before we have massive poisoning of elephant, on an unprecedented scale, which will have serious ramifications for the tourist industry and the economy.”
Last year Zimbabwe suffered its worst wildlife carnage in a quarter century after 300 elephants and several other animals were killed by cyanide poisoning in Hwange.
When asked about the corruption allegations, Prosecutor General Mr Johannes Tomana first hurled insults at this writer, saying “this was childish, you cannot just make wild accusations.”
He later calmed down after evidence of such claims were presented to him confirming that ZRP Dete were actually investigating the case and were on the hunt for Moyo and Nhliziyo.
While Mr Tomana had not yet responded to questions sent to him by email on October 30, he told me by telephone last Thursday that “you know we have zero tolerance to corruption.
“We are working with the Wildlife Authority to investigate the matter. Will advise when investigations are complete.”
Parks and Wildlife Authority spokesperson Caroline Washaya Moyo was not immediately available to answer to allegations of corruption against her organisation.
Environment, Water and Climate Minister Saviour Kasukuwere has at various times called for stiffer penalties against wildlife offenders, tasking the Wildlife Authority to strengthen its ‘foot soldiers’ in affected areas and work collaboratively with the police and the Environmental Management Agency.
His deputy, Mr Simon Musanhu told The Herald Business in an interview in September that the Ministry was “now aiming and pushing for a minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years in jail for wildlife offenders.”
While some arrests have been made, it is shocking how individuals can get access to 7kg of cyanide, a chemical supposedly tightly controlled in Zimbabwe.
Wildlife conservationists working in Victoria Falls said that much amount of cyanide was enough to kill hundreds of elephants in Hwange National Park, the country’s largest game reserve holding half of the estimated 80 000 elephant herd here.
At least 15g of the poison will be enough to kill an adult 6 tonne elephant, according to Dr Kathryn Harkup, a UK chemist and freelance science communicator. That means with 7kg, the poachers could have easily laid to waste over 450 elephants.
It cannot be said enough Zimbabwean authorities need to do more against poaching, but they must now also begin to tightly monitor the movement of cyanide as well as root out corruption from the law system.
In September, renowned conservationist and Zimbabwe’s rhino ambassador Charlene Hewat expressed disappointment that “poachers are caught and are let off on a very small bail.”
“The key to putting a stop to poaching is to make sure that our laws are enforced and that poachers do not get the bail that is the current trend,” Hewat fumed after seeing two suspected poachers in Victoria Falls released on $200 bail.
Wildlife trafficking is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Worldwide, $10 billion worth of wildlife and wildlife products are traded illegally each year. The major source markets of illegal ivory in Africa are South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
Poaching is also rife in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Uganda and in other African countries in the north and west.
In 2013, over 20 000 African elephants were killed illegally for their ivory, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The figure was a decline on 2011 and 2012 poaching levels, but remains unsustainably high.
Legal ivory trade is strongly controlled by the CITES. But over 500kg of ivory meant for the black market were seized before they left the continent last year.
CITES blames the high poaching incidents in Africa to poverty and weak governance structures.
In most African countries, weak funding from central governments has left multi-national donors and private individuals having to dig deeper into their own pockets to combat poaching.
Here, over US$750 000 has this year been poured by donors towards rhino and elephant conservation.
The 2014 National Budget transferred twice that much money to the Parks and Wildlife Authority, primarily to finance the purchase of vehicles for anti-poaching activities.
That money is barely sufficient in an industry controlled by wealthy, organised and powerful thieves.
God is faithful.