Environment, Water and Climate minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri recently announced that government had finally decided to deploy the army — supported by aerial platforms which include helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) — to conduct anti-poaching patrols in Hwange, Chizarira, Matusadona, Mana Pools and Gonarezhou national parks.
SUNDAY DISCOURSE BY OSCAR NKALA
The deployment follows a resurgence of the mass slaughter of elephants by poaching syndicates which use cyanide concentrate to poison water sources, salt licks or lace it on fruits which are then fed to the elephants.
The latest cyanide poisoning crisis is itself a chilling reminder of the slaughter of more than 300 elephants by a syndicate which ravaged Hwange National Park between 2008 and late 2013.
Acording to the minister, the latest round of cyanide poisonings resurfaced on a large scale in the Hwange and Matusadona national parks early in September and has since spread to the other areas.
The spread of this new poaching scourge to other national parks has claimed far more casualties than the 62 reported at the end of October and is certainly killing more elephants today because there is no evidence anywhere to prove that it has been stopped — and how.
Government will re-deploy game rangers to step up patrols in areas deemed most affected by both poison-based and armed poaching. Combined teams of game rangers and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) Support Unit would do rotational deployments to ensure 24-hour surveillance over the affected areas of Hwange.
When the cyanide poachers struck again in mid-October near the Main Camp in Hwange National Park and the Lupanda Forest in Lupane, Muchinguri-Kashiri repeated that new teams of game rangers had been deployed to “step up” patrols in the affected areas. Further, she said arrests were imminent as the State was closing in on the major cyanide poaching syndicate believed to be behind the bloodletting in Hwange.
Since then, the minister was never heard from or heard of until a fortnight ago when she appeared at a press conference to announce that the use of cyanide poison in elephant poaching had now spread from Hwange and Matusadona to Mana Pools and Gonarezhou national parks, which are also home to large elephant populations.
The statement was nearly true, but it was falsified by her failure to mention that the Hwange and Matusadona poisonings in September were by far not the first time poisoning has been used to kill elephants, rhinos and other animals in Zimbabwe.
It is, therefore, useful to point out that contrary to what government wants people to believe, there is information in the public domain which proves that cyanide poaching has never stopped since its devastating debut in 2008.
On April 2, the Financial Gazette published a story which quoted Environmental Management Authority (EMA) director Musa Chatsi saying the agency carried out five costly site decontaminations in 2014 to clear cyanide which was used to kill five elephants in the Hwange (Dete, Ngamo and Fuller Forest safari areas), Mana Pools and Victoria Falls national parks.
Further, he said two black rhinos, six elephants and one warthog were killed in two major cyanide poisoning cases which happened in Hwange and Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage (just outside Bulawayo) between January and March this year:
That means 11 elephants and two black rhino had been killed by cyanide poisoning between 2014 and the first quarter of 2015.
In July this year, Masvingo provincial police spokesman Assistant Inspector Nkululeko Nduna was quoted by the The Herald, saying they were investigating at least 10 cases of elephant poaching in the Gonarezhou National Park. He said the crimes were committed between June and July.
Of these, 11 were shot while nine were killed by poachers who fed them fruits laced with termic, a widely available, poisonous chemical commonly used for pest control in the tobbacco farming industry.
Eleven more elephants died of natura1 causes, bringing the number of deaths recorded between 2014 and July 2015 to at least 41. The three cases referred to above all but illustrate the dishonesty that continues to characterise the government’s half-hearted efforts to save the elephants, which is itself reflective of the lack of the political will to stop this politically-based cartel culture which allows some groups and individuals to loot State resources knowing they can manipulate the system to defeat the course of justice.
The deployment of the army to counter poaching in national parks will yield nothing in the absence of the driving force of political will to stop those in positions of power and authority who run poaching syndicates and use the justice system to exonerate, instead of dealing harshly with criminals.
Announcing the deployment of the army to the parks, Muchinguri-Kashiri said game rangers have told her in recent consultations that they were involved in poaching because they are poorly paid and poorly resourced.
She seemed to use this claim to justify the deployment of the army, even as there is no explanation to why the government would trust the army, which is as poorly resourced and poorly renumerated as the rangers, to guard and not be tempted into poaching the animals to deal with the poverty which has become a defining characteristic of the honest civil servant.
The deployment of the military creates the impression that cyanide poaching as a crisis re-emerged in September and now poses a national security threat, yet there is evidence which illustrates that it never stopped since the wholesale killings of the five-year period up to October 2013.
Apart from the real possibility of the soldiers soon tiring of routine patrols and joining the rangers in poaching, the hypocrisy of their deployment is that there remains no guarantee that the suspects who will be arrested by the army will be prosecuted.
There are numerous cases where poaching suspects, including repeat offenders connected to previous heinous crimes, have escaped prosecution on one technicality or another.
There are even cases — like the arrest in September — of six alleged poachers who were suspected of having killed a black rhino in Sebakwe Conservancy.
To date, there is no record of what happened to them, so the case has ended inconclusively. The arrest of parks authority staffers Edwin Makuwe, a senior ecologist and his surbodinates Masimba Nyoni and John Pedzisai on allegations of stealing and selling ivory from the main warehouse in Hwange — to a Harare-based Chinese syndicate — also ended inconclusively.
Although the case was trumpeted by the police and Zimparks as a breakthrough which exposed an internally-embedded ivory trafficking syndicate with international tentacles, the public has not been told until today that Masimba and Pedzisai were never formally charged with ivory theft following the intervention of some parks bosses, who are believed to be the kingpins of the syndicate in which the three accused are minor shareholders.
We have also not been told what happened to the two managers of parks authority stations from Main Camp and Sinamatella who were suspended in connection with the last cyanide poisonings in Hwange.
As long as such circumstances and the lack of the political will, which should be the driving force behind a functional counter-poaching strategy persist, the deployment of the army will not stop poaching.
If anything, it risks causing an escalation of the crisis by adding more unaccountable agencies which have the capacity to cover up their tracks when they commit crimes.
Nkala is an environmental reporter based in Bulawayo