Corruption killing rare wildlife in Zimbabwe

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The Independent Online

Endemic corruption in Zimbabwe's state sector is threatening the country's ability to protect its greatest natural resource: wildlife. Donors are wringing their hands in despair as aircraft donated to protect elephant herds from poachers are commandeered by government officials, and the desperately endangered black rhinoceros is slaughtered in one of its last refuges in the wild.

Endemic corruption in Zimbabwe's state sector is threatening the country's ability to protect its greatest natural resource: wildlife. Donors are wringing their hands in despair as aircraft donated to protect elephant herds from poachers are commandeered by government officials, and the desperately endangered black rhinoceros is slaughtered in one of its last refuges in the wild.

Moreover, the destruction is being exported across Africa by the Zimbabwean army, sent by President Robert Mugabe to support Laurent Kabila against rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The army started a sideline smuggling African grey parrots, worth up to £900 a bird, to Libya, bound for foreign markets.

Ironically, Zimbabwe successfully led the call to Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to ease its 11-year world ban on sales of ivory, on the grounds that it was properly protecting its elephant population and that the ivory from culls pays for conservation and helping local communities.

Now it has cut the ground from under its own feet, losing more than 30 elephants to poaching in one month in just one reserve, and offering no evidence that the £1.5m it earned from the sale of 20 tons of elephant tusks last year has found its way to the rural population.

And the country's poaching problem looks likely to deepen. Zimbabwe's Department of Parks and Wildlife has had three anti-poaching aircraft confiscated by disgruntled donors, leaving it with just one working plane to patrol game reserves that cover 13 per cent of the country's 150,000sq miles.

One donor has withdrawn a helicopter, believing that instead of being used to protect elephants it was flying top officials around the country. The Wilderness Conservancy has shipped the craft back to Los Angeles, claiming that it was not maintained and no records were kept of its flying hours or use. It is demanding £30,000 for repairs. Two fixed-wing aircraft have been reclaimed by another US donor amid reports that one was used for drug running - though this has been officially denied.

The aircraft revelations are part of a bitter public dispute as government departments leak damaging information about each other to the media. State rangers are being accused of rampant graft, turning a blind eye to poaching.

Yet another wildlife scandal blew up at the weekend. Army brass are accused by the SPCA in Harare of smuggling hundreds of African grey parrots, crammed into tiny cages, out of the Congo aboard cargo planes supplying Zimbabwe's 10,000 troops there. In a letter to Cites pleading for help in stopping the wholesale theft of wild parrots, the SPCA claims that the birds have been flown to Tripoli by Libyan transport aircraft to be sold on world markets, where they fetch up to £900 each.

Such revelations are horrifying other southern African countries, which are also keen to resume ivory sales. Cites is due to review its decision to lift the ivory ban at a meeting in Kenya in a few months.

Rather desperately, Zimbabwe is now suggesting the upsurge in poaching is being organised by countries and animal rights groups that want to stop ivory sales.

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