Zimbabwe: Elephant Numbers Down 6,8 Percent As Poaching Increases


Jeffrey Gogo, The Herald

Date Published

THE number of elephants in Zimbabwe has dropped 6,8 percent to 82 000 in 2014 from 88 000 three years earlier due to increased poaching, illegal trans-border trade of live animals and poor funding, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. “The emergence of a new elephant poaching tactic — lacing of waterholes with lethal cyanide — has resulted in deaths of not only elephants in Zimbabwe, but other wildlife,” said Kennedy Wekesa, AWF spokesperson, by email.

Already faced with extinction, hundreds of elephant have died in the Hwange National Park in the country’s north-west, and elsewhere, in recent years, as poachers poison 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.

“But it is also the increased trafficking of live game across the borders, inadequate resources for wildlife protection and enforcement and human wildlife conflict that is the trigger for decline of elephants in Zimbabwe,” said Mr Wekesa.

The elephant is poached for its tusks which have a lucrative underground market in Asia. Across Africa, more than 30 000 elephants are killed illegally for this purpose each year, according to the AWF. Officials here are now lobbying against a global ban in commercial ivory trade.

Earnings from ivory will help with control of Zimbabwe’s huge elephant herd, Africa’s second largest, which has often times destroyed food crops and vegetation. Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri Kashiri said last week that Zimbabwe was sitting on 96 tonnes of ivory worth millions of dollars.

She is hoping that world governments will see the light when they meet for the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in South Africa later this year, and reverse the ban.

After all, the ban is predominantly sponsored by rich countries — who have no experience at all living with the world’s biggest land mammal daily in their lives — and a few other African countries with tiny elephant populations, and whose poor wildlife management plans are funded from outside.

Kenya, which recently burnt 105 tonnes of ivory in support of a complete ban in the trade of ivory, has received $150 million from the US to fund wildlife conservation for the next couple of years. By contrast, Zimbabwe’s conservation is mostly funded by the cash-strapped central Government, and from the multi-million-dollar trophy hunting industry.

It is not clear how many elephants have actually been trafficked out of the country, but the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) has considered selling, or eventually sold, dozens of young elephant to China and the United Arab Emirates, legally.

“Zimbabwe has opted for non-lethal options in the management of its elephant population,” the ZimParks says on its website. “Elephants are being captured and relocated within and outside the country to alleviate ecological pressure . . .”

And as habitat loss widens due to agriculture, urbanisation and theft of game reserve perimeter fence, human-wildlife conflicts have escalated. During the first quarter of 2015, over 25 people were killed in encounters between villagers and wild animals like an elephant, lion, hippo and crocodiles. At least 12 elephants were killed in return, the ZimParks says.

The African Wildlife Foundation, which is on a ‘zero tolerance against poaching and wildlife trafficking’ campaign — said African governments needed to do more to control poaching, and to boost the elephant population.

Concerned Africa’s wild lands will not be the same without its key wild animals like the elephant, the AWF said governments should: “enact strict and punitive legislation for wildlife crime, and prosecute wildlife crimes aggressively regardless of the party, status, nationality or relationship of criminals.”

Further, governments should now speak out more, and authoritatively too, concerning their own wildlife while looking to “collaborate and lead by instituting moratoriums on ivory trade, and sending unambiguous messages about trade during the poaching crisis.”

According to a CITES study, the elephant population in Zimbabwe has climbed sharply in the past 40 years due to prudent conservation. Aerial surveys show there was an estimated 46 000 elephants in the country in 1980; at least 58 600 in 1989; and some 64 000 in 1995. These figures are, however, disputed by other conservationists.

But the ZimParks is not ashamed of the work it’s been doing. “. . . at our own expense as a country, we have burdened ourselves with the huge costs of managing abnormal elephant populations for the benefit of the entire world,” it says.

In Africa, wildlife numbers are dwindling. There is only 475 000 elephants left in the wild from 1,3 million in 1970, data from the African Wildlife Foundation shows. Black rhino populations have plummeted to just 5 000 in 2014 compared to 65 000 fifty years ago.

The rhino is another poacher’s favourite. Its horn can fetch as much as $15 000 per kg on the black market. And each horn could weigh 5kg or more.

Although the lion population has plunged from 200 000 in 1964 to between 20 000 and 35 000 in 2014, Southern Africa has reported greater success in lion conservation compared to West Africa whose lions are categorised “critically endangered” due to prey decline, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Increases have been reported in white rhino and mountain gorilla numbers that have soared 466 percent and 227 percent, respectively, during the period under review. Experts say the loss of species results in biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, diminishing the quality of human lives and basic economic security. By saving species people save biodiversity and the ecosystems that provide the natural resources needed to survive.

God is faithful.