Zimbabwean wildlife is being annihilated

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The Independent Online

As the pale pink haze of the dawn gently gives way to warming sunlight over the African savannah, Kenneth Manyangadze cuts the engine of his four-wheel drive. He might have expected to see an elephant amble into view from behind a baobab, or a giraffe nibbling a mapone tree. But straight ahead of us on the gravel road is a very different creature: a man in a Nike vest.

As the pale pink haze of the dawn gently gives way to warming sunlight over the African savannah, Kenneth Manyangadze cuts the engine of his four-wheel drive. He might have expected to see an elephant amble into view from behind a baobab, or a giraffe nibbling a mapone tree. But straight ahead of us on the gravel road is a very different creature: a man in a Nike vest.

This is no tourist who has come to feast his eyes on some of the most beautiful and endangered creatures on Earth but a hungry farm worker who will soon fill his belly with rhinoceros, zebra or, if he is particularly cunning, cheetah. What he does not eat, he will sell.

It is the height of the safari season in southern Africa and this year, the poachers - chief among them President Robert Mugabe's "war veterans" - outnumber the tourists.

As Zimbabwe's political crisis reverberates deep in the magical wilderness of Save Valley Conservancy, the world's biggest private game reserve, thousands of rare animals - including the black rhinoceros and the African wild dog, as well as zebras, giraffes and leopards - are the latest victims of a land war which has become a free-for-all among impoverished people struggling to survive.

Amid what he calls the "systematic annihilation'' of stocks by thousands of poachers, the estate manager, Dave Stockil, who works with his uncle, Clive, is in despair. "The scouts are patrolling the conservancy but they are powerless because the police will not intervene to remove the poachers," he says. Mr Stockil estimates that the 850,000-acre reserve has already lost thousands of antelope - killed by crude circular snares made with wire stolen from the perimeter fence.

His colleague, Mr Manyangadze, more accustomed to escorting tourists with clicking cameras, now finds he is waging a daily battle to protect the reserve's stocks. "The poachers have killed hundreds and hundreds of zebras, impala, kudu - anything they can get. They are selling the meat and they say they want the land."

Yesterday, the conservancy's 150 game scouts had been deployed to track an injured black rhino and one of its 300 giraffes, spotted with a "bell-bottom leg" caused by a snare injury. One of the reserve's 90 wild dogs has already been found dead in a snare, as have three cheetahs, two leopards, dozens of zebras and up to four giraffes. A tusk from an elephant which had apparently been shot was found to have been removed and the reserve's conservator, Graham Connear, believes rhino-horn traders have arrived in the area.

Zimbabwe's political crisis - which began in February as part of President Mugabe's ruthless campaign to secure a parliamentary majority for his party in June's elections - has claimed more than 30 human lives. Now, with his near-bankrupt government desperately pushing through an "accelerated resettlement programme", thousands are taking advantage of continuing confusion over land ownership in rural areas.

Mr Connear estimates that, at any one time, between 500 and 2,000 poachers from neighbouring lands are on the Save conservancy - a tract of land the size of Majorca - where two sections have recently been gazetted for government acquisition, even though they are officially listed as unsuitable for farming and are part of a designated reserve supported by the World Wide Fund For Nature.

In one part of the reserve, people claiming to be veterans of the Seventies war against white rule have cleared a vast area of land to build huts. They survive by selling poached meat in neighbouring villagesand have begun planting maize even though little can be cultivated in the drought and flood-prone landscape.

The VHF radio in Mr Connear's office crackled into life as a game scout reported the latest of the poaching incidents: two men had been apprehended in the Mukwazi area with a dead porcupine and a hyrax. They had been tracking a warthog using nine dogs and bows and arrows. The scouts had shot three of the dogs and would hold the poachers in a cell until the police arrived.

Mr Connear telephonedInspector Phiri. Yes, the policeman assured him, officers would collect the poachers the following day and charge them. "That does not happen every time," said Mr Connear. "Maybe things are improving."

The government has cause to act on the concerns of the wildlife lobby. Tourism - currently down to a trickle of regional visitors at reserves like Save and Victoria Falls - is a major foreign currency earner. In addition, Zimbabwe's European Union meat sales licence is in jeopardy because 14km of Save's perimeter fence has been destroyed by poachers, raising the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease in the reserve's 1,000-strong buffalo population could spread to cattle. Beef exports are worth £300m a year.

Save Valley Conservancy was created less than a decade ago, when 25 cattle breeders, whose businesses were failing because of a severe drought, amalgamated their land. The government gave the project its blessing and the international consortium which created the conservancy created a stakeholder scheme called Campfire under which local residents would make money from the sale of excess stock.

Today, Save (pronounced "Savay") has 800 elephants, 1,500 zebras, as well as lions, cheetahs, leopards and other predators, and 400 species of birds. But its greatest success has been in creating an environment in which more than 70 black rhinos - out of only 2,400 in the world - and 92 wild dogs ( lycaon pictus) are thriving.

The smell of rotting meat pervades the forecourt outside Mr Stockil's office. By the door, he has two piles, each 8ft high, of circular wire snares found in the bush. Each of the death traps is no more complex than a coat hanger, with a loop at one end and enough wire at the other to tie around a tree. A few metres away, a pile of reeking skulls, bones and entrails are, he says, the remains of a giraffe and several antelope.

"What we are seeing is a systematic annihilation of the wildlife," said Mr Stockil.

"We do not know how the black rhino are doing because they are concentrated in an area where the war veterans have set up their main base camp and we are threatened if we try to go there. When the national parks staff came to assist us a month ago, the police refused to provide reinforcements because they said the poaching was a 'political' matter.

"If the poaching stops now, it will take us six months to clear up all the snares. We will need a seven-ton truck to remove them because there are now thousands of them and they are killing animals far faster than the poachers can collect the meat. The animals can sense the danger and have fled from the southern part of Senuko. In some areas, you are lucky if you see a squirrel."

Most Zimbabweans agree land reform is necessary in a country where the majority of the 12 million population lives in crowded "communal areas" with poor access to water or fertilisers. More than 100,000 people live in such conditions around Save. By contrast, 4,500 white farmers control the best land and grow lucrative tobacco and vegetable crops using European technology.

The site for Save Valley Conservancy was chosen specifically because its land is poor and Mr Manyangadze believes sheer greed is at work.

Yet the residents of the communal land bordering the reserve are poor and hungry, like Debuley Muzeondakaya who was apprehended by scouts yesterday with a friend, two dogs and a dead cane rat. "We just came to fish," said the 18-year-old. He has a genuine need for food.

Mr Manyangadze is unsympathetic. "They are thieves, they are not working for a living, and they are lying.

"We have a problem which is going to stay. People have discovered that there is meat here and hunting is more lucrative than farming maize. If the government gives people land but does not help them to farm it profitably, the poachers will just carry on," he said.

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