As across Africa elephants are dying by the many thousands at the hands of poachers, there is one particular area that tells the tale of this tragedy in a most poignant way. At least, to me it does.
This place is Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Hwange was once an African paradise where many hundreds of elephants roamed freely. They were protected by a decree issued by President Mugabe in 1991, which ordered the herd should never be harmed by poachers or other threats.
The first wild elephants I ever encountered, years ago, belonged to this Presidential Herd. I will never forget the sense of wonder when the safari jeep I was in found itself surrounded by these gentle giants. It was a pitch-dark night, so we could only hear the rustling of grass in their mouths and the low rumbling with which they communicate, and the warmth of their bodies, which were so close we could have touched them. It was deeply moving to be so near such majestic creatures, who clearly had learned to trust humans. It is very likely these same elephants are now dead, killed for their ivory tusks.
Poachers have been targeting Hwange’s wildlife with snares and guns for over a decade, ever since 2000, when the fast-track resettlement program sparked an era of violence and lawlessness in Zimbabwe.1
In recent years however, poachers have turned to an exceptionally ruthless method of killing Hwange’s elephants: poisoning waterholes and saltpans with cyanide. In the summer of 2013 this culminated in an unprecedented ecological tragedy: over 300 elephants have been found poisoned, along with many hundreds of other animals that used the same salt pans and waterholes or ate the carcasses of poisoned animals.
The first elephants were discovered in July by a group of hunters who flew over the area, Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told the Agence France-Presse. “The authorities only stepped in in September, and by then the numbers had escalated. As of last week, about 325 had died altogether.” 2
A number of poachers have been arrested and sentenced to unusually stiff sentences. On 25 September three poachers were sentenced to at least 15 years in prison each for poisoning and killing 81 elephants.3
For anyone who wondered who has orchestrated the massacre, the answer came this week, when Zimbabwe’s newspaper The Standard reported that high-level government officials are involved. According to the report dated 20 October “Sources said the senior government officials, including cabinet ministers, are now threatening villagers, whom they sent to kill elephants on their behalf, so they don’t reveal their names. Some villagers are said to have been offered money to buy their silence. “There are five ministers implicated in this saga, but it’s difficult to nail them down because they have used threats and money to cover their tracks,” said one source. “Some of them are said to have actually supplied cyanide to runners who in turn gave it to villagers to poison water sources.”4
In a report by AllAfrica Rodrigues agreed that high-level authorities are involved, claiming there is a “cover up operation” underway. He said the entire Hwange Park is on “lockdown,” with a heavily military presence being witnessed. He added that the authorities are refusing to allow independent investigators access to the park, and the figures he has obtained are according to eyewitnesses who have gathered information from helicopter scouting trips over the park. “We can’t prove who the individuals involved are but the whole place is on lockdown and it seems they have something to hide. It seems like a big cover up is happening,” Rodrigues said.5
It seems unlikely that the high-level government officials who are ultimately behind the senseless massacre of Hwange National Park will ever be brought to justice in a country where the rule of law is virtually absent and corruption is so endemic. As so often, the price is paid by the poor men who were used by those higher up the trafficking chain. And of course by the countless animals who have died as a result.
1. ‘Land reform in Zimbabwe’, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_reform_in_Zimbabwe
2. ‘Zimbabwe Elephants Cyanide Poisoning ‘Massacre’ Kills More Than 300 In Hwange National Park’, International Business Times, 21 October 2013:
3. ‘Zimbabwe poachers jailed 15 years for elephant poisoning’, Fox New 25 September 2013: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/09/25/zimbabwe-poachers-jailed-15-years-for-elephant-poisoning/
4. ‘Bigwigs fingered Hwange elephant poisoning’, The Standard, 20 October 2013: http://www.thestandard.co.zw/2013/10/20/bigwigs-fingered-hwange-elephant-poisoning/
5. ‘Zimbabwe: Zanu-PF ‘Bigwigs’ Implicated in Over 300 Elephant Deaths’, AllAfrica 21 October 2013: http://allafrica.com/stories/201310220236.html
– Featured image: Nativeescapes.com
– Dead elephant: Daily Mail