Harare, Zimbabwe — A new kind of battle is being waged on a 185-mile-long stretch of flood plain in Zimbabwe's Zambezi Valley. The battle is between specialized government troops and the Zambian poachers who are plundering in one of Africa's important black rhinoceros sanctuaries.
In early 1984, three rhino carcasses were discovered on the valley floor, their huge leathery muzzles defaced when their horns were hacked off.
It was a clear warning that the international trade in rhino horn had shifted its operations to Zimbabwe.
Rhino horn commands top dollar. In Singapore, the traditional hub of the trade, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of horn can fetch up to $1,000.
And when sold in its final form to the public in apothecaries throughout the Far East, a kilogram of the substance can ultimately be worth up to $10,000.
Zimbabwe's black rhino population is now regarded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as being the most important on the African continent.
Numbering about 1,500, the powerfully muscled animals have lived in the Zambezi Valley undisturbed for centuries, prospering off the dense vegetation and ample water supply and protected by the hostile environment, the area's remoteness, and, in the last 30 years, an efficient network of game ranges.
But in the first three months of this year, poachers crossing the river from Zambia killed 22 rhinos. Patrols by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management proved inadequate, and the situation was worsened by lack of cooperation from Zambian authorities.
In late March, however, the problem came to the attention of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, an ardent convert to the cause of conservation.
In April, troops of the Zimbabwean Special Forces, a unit trained for anti-insurgency bush warfare and attached to Mugabe's central intelligence organization, were deployed in the area, as were men of Zimbabwe's police.
They had an almost immediate effect. Gangs have been surprised in ambushes and court appearances scheduled for those arrested.
``The situation has changed dramatically,'' said an official of the department of national parks. ``The poaching is now being contained.''
Still, official approaches to Zambian authorities have had little effect, although sources said recently that they had received ``indications that things are beginning to move.''
The parks official would not be specific, but Zimbabwe has given the Zambians information about six poachers who escaped capture, as well as the names and addresses of dealers in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, who are believed to have financed poaching operations.