CONSERVATIONISTS have called for an independent probe into elephant poaching blamed on senior government officials but they fear that the results may be stifled like previous ones that allegedly fingered senior officers in the security forces.
BY CAIPHAS CHIMHETE
Some suggested that the inquiry must include local and international investigators to avoid piece-meal probes that cover-up instead of exposing the culprits.
Already, senior government officials, including five cabinet ministers, have been fingered in the scandal believed to have claimed up to 500 elephants in a few months.
“There have been several inquiries related to poaching, some resulted in the deaths of rangers and security forces, but the outcomes were never made public, or they left a lot more questions than answers,” said one conservationist, who has been following poaching trends for the past three decades. “We now need a truly independent inquiry.”
The MDC-T has also weighed in, also calling for an independent commission to investigate the poaching scandal.
“We reiterate our position, that the people involved in the purchasing of cyanide that is used to kill the elephants are not the villagers, but a well-connected and orchestrated international syndicate, which involves some senior politicians in conjunction with senior wild park officials,” said MDC-T Shadow Minister for Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources, Thamsanqa Mahlangu.
He added: “The trade in cyanide is a complex business, which simple villagers in Matabeleland North cannot carry out without the involvement of well-connected politicians and corrupt officials who are linked to Zanu PF.”
Another environmentalist said the recent arrest of Chen Guoliang, a Chinese national, at Harare airport while trying to smuggle ivory showed that the poaching syndicate was complicated and involved powerful people.
He said there was no way villagers in Tsholotsho could link up with Guoliang to illegally trade in ivory without an influential middleman.
Guoliang was trying to board a flight to Malaysia carrying raw ivory and chopsticks and jewellery worth around US$28 250.
A few days earlier, South African police had arrested a bus crew for smuggling 2kg of ivory worth R1,6 million into that country through the Beitbridge Border Post.
There is fear that because the villagers in Tsholotsho were being bribed and threatened to remain silent, the real culprits behind poaching would never be exposed.
Senior level poaching has been going on for the past three decades.
“Even up to now, mystery still surrounds the death of Captain Edwin Nleya in 1989 after he had threatened to expose senior army officers who were involved in poaching and smuggling ivory outside the country,” he said. “There are several cases in the past in which rangers were said to have been killed by the so-called poachers.”
Amnesty International alleged that Nleya was killed because of what he knew about the involvement of senior Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) officers in poaching and smuggling activities, evidence of which he had uncovered on military duty in Mozambique in 1988.
“His family and an army colleague have stated that Nleya was concerned about the role of the ZNA in poaching and smuggling as far back as 1986 and wanted to report what he knew about the corruption racket not only to the highest level of the army but also to the Zimbabwe government,” said a Transparency International (TI) report, Poaching and Unexplained Deaths: The Case of Captain Nleya published 1992.
The human rights watchdog group was also concerned about the unexplained death in 1991 of Lieutenant Shepard Chisango, who reportedly had witnessed members of the security forces smuggling goods from Mozambique.
Apart from that, “At least five people, all of whom were involved in investigating poaching and smuggling, were killed in car accidents between 1988 and 1990,” said TI. “One of them, John Chitsa, deputy superintendent commanding officer for Matabeleland North, was a friend of Captain Nleya, and reportedly witnessed Nleya complaining about corruption within ZNA.”
He died in a car accident in September 1988.
Former National Parks director, Willie Nduku said they had always suspected the involvement of powerful people in poaching.
“This is a big syndicate,” said Nduku, current Chairman of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ). “We had this problem a long time ago. That time they used guns not cyanide so it was easy to track poachers.”
Even then it was difficult to nail the real culprits, he said, “Remember, we had four rangers who were gunned down in 1987 in Gonarezhou by the so-called poachers.”
Nduku said there was need to deploy army and police under the supervision of rangers in the short-term to stop poaching.
“During my days, army and police were assigned to our guys so that there was a proper reporting structure,” he said. “There is need to properly regulate the acquisition and use of cyanide.”
National Parks spokesperson Caroline Washaya-Moyo refused to comment, referring questions to the police.
Charity Charamba, Police national spo-kesperson, could not be reached for comment this week.