Poaching and Human wildlife conflict during the lockdown in Zimbabwe
Covid19 has been identified as one of the most infectious diseases caused by a coronavirus ordinarily found in animal species, and spread from wildlife to humans. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Italy) notes that emerging viral diseases which have affected millions of people are a direct result of human impact on natural ecosystems. However, this has not deterred people from poaching, whether as international transboundary syndicates or for subsistence. The deadly Covid-19 has left wildlife more vulnerable to poaching syndicates which have taken advantage of the laxity of security systems during lockdown to escalate poaching. Zimbabwe started implementing the preventive measures against Covid19 on the 17th of March 2020 and subsequently went on national lockdown on the 30th of March 2020. However, not much effort has been directed at ensuring transparency and accountability in Wildlife Management during the ongoing lockdown. This week’s situation update, therefore, assesses the state of wildlife crimes such as poaching and human-wildlife conflict during the lockdown.
Poaching during lockdown
Globally, poaching is one of the most thriving organized crime business estimated to be worth more than $213 billion a year. It is estimated that up to $23 billion worth of elephant tusks, rhino horns, tiger bones, bear bile and other wildlife by-products illicitly change hands, every year. Southern Africa has been hit by an increase in poaching activities since lockdowns regulations were implemented. According to Nico Jacobs, founder of Rhino 911, a non-profit that provides emergency rescue helicopter transport for rhinoceroses, Rhino 911 has been responding to rhino poaching incident nearly every day since South Africa announced a national lockdown on March 23. At least nine rhinos have been poached in South Africa’s North West province alone since the lockdown. In neighbouring Botswana, according to Rhino Conservation Botswana, another non-profit organization, at least six rhinos had been poached as of 8 April 2020 since the country closed its borders to stop the spread of Covid-19. These are isolated incidences in South Africa and Botswana which mirror what is happening in other countries in the region that house species that are attract poachers.
Illegal trade of wild animals has become an international industry that is perpetrated by poachers, traffickers and highly-organized and armed criminal gangs. Although the lockdown entailed a ban on human movements, the number of animals that have been poached since the commencement of the lockdown has been on the rise. In Zimbabwe, between January and February, three elephants were killed by poachers, but since the beginning of the lockdown, at least seven elephants have been lost in the Hwange National Park and Bubye Conservancy, according to a CNRG source. Two white rhinos were also killed in April, although the poaching incidents were not reported publicly. Lions and buffaloes were also among some of the animals that were killed in April.
Use of weapons in poaching
Poachers employ various techniques to kill the animals. They use guns, poison and snares among others. Some of the poachers who are preying on the country’s endangered animals during this lockdown are armed. Although Zimparks could not confirm, information gathered by Centre for Natural Resource Governance indicates that seven riffles and 24 ammunitions were recovered from poachers countrywide. The weapons and ammunition used by poachers provide an insight into the highly funded, dangerous and sophisticated industry of illegal wildlife trade. Poaching syndicates also often enlist the services of vulnerable locals to poison the animals with substances like cyanide. At least four elephants succumbed to poisoning by locals in Hwange, Kariba and Guruve at the start of the lockdown in March.
Poaching for subsistence.
While some of the drivers influencing locals into poaching are local and international criminal syndicates who entice them with money, some are driven by poverty, hunger and the search for survival. The economic crisis bedevilling Zimbabwe has driven vulnerable local communities sharing borders with national parks and conservancies into criminality. The economic crisis is further pushing villagers to hunt and kill animals for their consumption or to sell as game meat. Studies have so far revealed that locals “would cease poaching if they were to receive a sufficient income to meet their needs.” Subsistence poachers often do not use sophisticated tactics. They rely on home-made snares and their dogs. Information gathered by CNRG indicates that a total of 1150 snares were recovered between March and April while 40 domestic dogs were shot dead. A total of 75 local poachers were arrested in April and two were killed in the process. Lack of transparency in the manner in which the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) operates also fuels poaching because locals have not been deriving any value from protecting animals. Information is never shared with communities on the revenues generated and how the proceeds were used, thereby eroding all the sense of ownership from the people.
The foreign hand in poaching
On the 18th of May 2020, a senior police officer Nhlanhla Nkomo and a former Zimparks ranger Owen Nyoni together with a Zambian national Stanley Katandika were sentenced to 24 years in prison by Beitbridge magistrate for poaching a rhino. Wildlife trade involves international criminal syndicates with foreign nationals making trips to Zimbabwe to organise the criminal activities with local agents. Some of the agents are in the security and law enforcement sector of Zimbabwe. There are reports that there is a thriving market of wildlife products in China, where the zoonotic Covid19 was first reported. While no Chinese national has been arrested during the ongoing lockdown, seven were arrested in 2019 for possession of more than 20kg of rhino horn pieces with an estimated value of close to $1 million. They were later released on RTGS 1500 bail after spending four months in prison. The demand for Africa’s wildlife in East Asia, has been as a result of population growth and burgeoning affluence that has led to rising demand for exotic and luxury products, including wildlife products. China is the region’s largest economy and simultaneously the largest consumer market for wildlife. Most wildlife products are consumed as food or as ingredients in traditional medicines.
The tourism factor
While poaching is not unusual in Africa the last decade has seen more than 9,000 rhinos killed for their horns. Conservationists argue that the recent poaching incidents in Botswana and South Africa and other parts of Africa were unusual because they occurred in tourism hot spots that, until now, were considered relatively safe havens for wildlife. National lockdowns, border closures, emergency visa restrictions, quarantines and other measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus have severely constricted Africa’s $39 billion tourism industry. Tourism business motivates and funds wildlife conservation across the continent, leading to giant efforts by governments and the private sector to increase the security of endangered animal species. Tim Davenport, who directs species conservation programs for Africa at the Wildlife Conservation Society has argued that, most animals are not protected by rangers, they are also protected by tourist presence. Most poachers do not frequent places where tourists converge as a safety measure. Although the above analysis is true to a large extent, government authorities and wildlife companies need to beef up the number of rangers patrolling national parks and animal conservancies to preserve the remaining endangered animals.
Human wildlife conflict (HWC)
Governments have taken unprecedented measures to curb the spread of Covid19 since it was declared pandemic by the World Health organisation in January. However, in Zimbabwe, human wildlife conflict which is defined as any human and wildlife interaction which negatively impacts human being’s social, economic or cultural life is an ignored epidemic. Human-wildlife conflicts have been spreading all over the country particularly in areas with huge populations of wild animals such as Manicaland, Matabeleland North and South as well as Masvingo provinces. While the deadly Covid19 has claimed four lives as of 22 May 2020, HWC has claimed a total of 20 lives in Zimbabwe since January 2020. More people have been killed by wild animals than those killed by COVID-19 yet the country continues to turn a blind eye to the problem. The recorded fatalities are mostly victims of dangerous animals as classified by the Parks and Wildlife Act. These are elephants which so far have claimed eight lives; buffaloes, 2; lions, 2 and hippos, 2. The rhino and the leopards are also classified as dangerous animals. The crocodile also accounts for six casualties countrywide.
CNRG recommends the following:
- The police should make use of the Interpol’s fire arm tracing system to trace weapons and ammunitions recovered at poaching sites. This will help to bust criminal poaching syndicates.
- Government should liaise with its various concerned departments to uproot the underlying causes of wildlife crimes such as corruption and poor remunerations in the wildlife management and law enforcement sectors.
- The government should also effectively address socio-economic needs of communities that live close to game parks and conservancies as a way of discouraging killing animals for meat and profits.
- The government should review governance of the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) projects to allow local communities more authority on management of the funds.
- Parliament of Zimbabwe should amend the Parks and Wildlife Act to effectively address poaching and protect wildlife and plants from greedy elites.
- The government and civil society should intensify awareness raising on the effects of poaching and measures to address human-wildlife conflict.