Black rhinos face extinction in Zimbabwe as Mugabe seizes game parks for hunting

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The Independent Online

The black rhino is a species that has returned from the brink. After falling by 96 per cent in the 20 years to 1992, its population began to grow again thanks to the efforts of conservationists. Now it is returning to the plains across Africa. Except in Zimbabwe.

The black rhino is a species that has returned from the brink. After falling by 96 per cent in the 20 years to 1992, its population began to grow again thanks to the efforts of conservationists. Now it is returning to the plains across Africa. Except in Zimbabwe.

Under pressure from rampant poaching and human settlement on game reserves seized by Robert Mugabe's regime, the animal is vanishing from the grasslands where it once prospered.

As the government considers a new law to nationalise the remaining private game parks, which hold most of the rhinos still in Zimbabwe, conservationists fear the country's population is now only a few months away from extinction.

Under the new law, which is being considered by Mr Mugabe's cabinet, the state would seize all remaining game parks owned by whites. Mr Mugabe's ministers have already allocated themselves lucrative land on which to operate hunting safaris.

Until Mr Mugabe started his seizure of farms in 2000, Zimbabwe had the single largest concentration of rhinos in the world with more than 500 in its national and private game parks.

More than half of these have been lost to poaching in the past two years alone and only about 200 remain, said Johnny Rodrigues, the head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a wildlife advocacy group. "If they seize the remaining private game parks, the VIPs will move in and shoot all the remaining rhinos," Mr Rodrigues said. The term VIP is regularly used in Zimbabwe to refer to those close to the President. "A single rhino horn fetches £60,000 in China and that's a good enough incentive for them to destroy the few that are left."

Mugabe loyalists who have allocated themselves hunting concessions around national parks have already profited by allowing South African hunters to go after quarry without following conservation rules. The plight of the black rhino in Zimbabwe stands in sharp contrast to its success in the rest of Africa, where good conservation practices have put the giant mammal on the road to recovery.

The World Conservation Union estimates that the number of black rhinos in Africa is around 3,600, a rise of 500 over the past two years.

"The situation is really distressing," said Mr Rodrigues. Rhinos would be wiped out in the country unless drastic measures were taken, he said.

Private parks no longer offer protection for animals, as they are being invaded and occupied by supporters of the regime. Those who invade the private game parks to poach animals do so with impunity. Law enforcement officers and rangers from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management ignore them.

In several national parks, various species of animals had already been wiped out, Mr Rodrigues said.

One game park owner, who requested anonymity, said that the plan to nationalise the remaining private game parks would mark the end of Zimbabwe as a recognised wildlife haven. "I spend at least US$400,000 [£220,000] to maintain my game park with little in return every month. Since the government doesn't have money to invest and maintain these parks, Mugabe's supporters will just move in and kill after nationalisation."

The African wild dog was also close to extinction in some parts of Zimbabwe while the elephant population had been falling dramatically, said the park owner. "In Gonarezhou, cattle outnumber elephants. Boundary fences have been destroyed and used to set up snares. It's a disaster."

Gonarezhou once had Zimbabwe's largest elephant population. That was before massive poaching started with the advent of Mugabe's land-seizure policy in 2000. Some of the elephants have been moved to South Africa.

Mr Rodrigues accused "the VIPs" of charging unscrupulous hunters for the right to come to their land and shoot animals, thereby contributing to the decimation of the wildlife resources. "As I speak to you now, I am in an area where we found 40 legs of elephants that were randomly killed," he said. "The [hunters] come in, pay the VIPs US dollars and shoot anything they want. It's appalling," he said. On the other hand, destitute villagers snare animals for food.

In a statement recently, the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce suggested that only a change of government could save Zimbabwe's wildlife resources. "Unless we have a change of government, it seems, we are powerless to stop this strategy which is unfolding daily," the statement said.

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