Backstory: In Zimbabwe, ragtag scouts vs. poachers

On foot and with few resources, the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit wields little but hope in its effort to save dwindling wildlife.

We smell the buffalo before we see him. When we find his massive body, it's clear he has been dead for some time. Nobody has used his meat.

"It looks like the shooter was aiming for the heart, but he shot low and it may have gotten the bottom of the lungs here," points out Charles Brightman, coordinator of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit. "That's why this buffalo's been able to run so far, and then died later from its wounds. What a waste. It's a nice old big bull, hey?"

What a waste. It's the story of Zimbabwe these days. Six years after President Robert Mugabe encouraged the violent takeover of white-owned farmland, the country is facing acute food shortages, massive emigration, increasing political repression and more than 1,000 percent inflation. It is also facing environmental devastation.

Poaching here, both commercial and subsistence, is on the rise. Around Victoria Falls, once a top tourist destination, hungry locals are setting tens of thousands of snares to catch protected animals. Poaching gangs with high-caliber weapons are moving into the area. Bush-meat markets, where entrepreneurs illegally sell meat from impala, buffalo, and elephant, are sprouting in impoverished townships. Legal meat is too expensive.

The Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit is one small group of Zimbabweans – black and white – trying to fight this environmentally deadly trend.

Here in Victoria Falls National Park, not far from the mile-long falls and some of the fanciest safari lodges in the region, is where Mr. Brightman and the unit's scouts found the buffalo. They'd tracked it from the dozens of vultures overhead.

Brightman's rifle is cocked, and he gives one of his scouts a handgun. Poaching has become a dangerous, high-stakes business in Zimbabwe.

In the past, the unit has discovered hidden butcheries where poachers skin their catch and prepare meat for sale. The scouts have found dead rhinos with their horns cut off – a telltale sign of an international poaching syndicate that will make thousands of dollars selling horns as aphrodisiacs in Asia or as dagger handles in Yemen.

Brightman turns to three other scouts, who've been guarding the carcass: "OK, let's turn him over."

***

Seven years ago, when Brightman was working as a safari guide, he found himself troubled by an increase in poaching here. When he discovered that the park service had only 10 rangers to counter hundreds of poachers, he decided to try to help. He came up with the idea of an independent antipoaching unit, funded by local businesses and hotels, that would work with the park service. He recruited scouts and convinced other players in the tourism industry to support his efforts.

At first Brightman kept his safari company going. But as Zimbabwe's decline continued, business slowed. Soon, he says, he realized that the anti-poaching efforts were more important – if he succeeded in stopping, or reducing, the killing, he'd always have a chance to restart his business. If he didn't succeed, there'd be no business anyhow.

Today he has 13 scouts, two pairs of handcuffs, a collection of hand-held radios, and an inoperable and battered 4x4 in his yard. With this, his unit attempts to patrol 12,000 acres of bush around Victoria Falls. Though Brightman often takes scouts around in his own 4x4, scouts often still have to walk to their patrol points – a waste of time, and a problem when they find a poacher deep in the bush, he says.

Brightman also tries to find alternative employment for subsistence poachers, although now any job is hard to find.

So far, the group has removed more than 17,000 wire snares and has helped authorities arrest more than 200 poachers.

"It's vital that we conserve these natural resources," Brightman says. "Not only for our own heritage, but for tourism, too. Without visitors to Zimbabwe, bringing in vital foreign currency, all these areas would lose their economic value."

Pay is minimal. Because of inflation and because the unit is funded by local hotels and businesses that are also suffering from the economic collapse, each scout gets only about $25 a month. Brightman and his family are surviving on dwindling savings.

Replacing equipment – whether boots or a Land Rover – is nearly impossible. The value of the Zimbabwean dollar plummets by the day. Meanwhile, the hours are long, the wildlife dangerous, and poachers decidedly unfriendly. One scout needed 12 stitches after a poacher, who also happened to be a neighbor, slammed a brick into his head. Still, Brightman says, there's a waiting list of men eager to work for him.

"We find that most of the guys working are working on their own because they want to help get rid of these poachers," says one scout, who asks that his name not be used because he is afraid that Zimbabwean authorities will punish him for talking to a foreign journalist.

***

Brightman is the first to grab onto a stiff buffalo leg. He has the tough but relaxed gait of someone who has lived in southern Africa his whole life. His face is boyish but weathered, the look Zimbabweans seem to get from working in the sun and worrying about their country. The group pulls together, and the animal rolls over. The flies crescendo into an angrier, louder cloud.

When they find a carcass, one scout tells me, they will set up an ambush and wait for the poacher to return. They did this once on a Victoria Falls golf course, where workers had found a snared impala. At night, two caddies came to collect their meat, andthe anti-poaching unit pounced. They arrested the men, who were fined.

Brightman pulls out his cellphone to call the park warden. Working with government authorities is crucial for Brightman, even though many conservationists allege that park officials themselves are involved in poaching. If he gets on their bad side, they could easily shut down the unit.

He calls a number on his cellphone: "Hi, senior warden, how are you? I've got a big buffalo bull and it looks like it's been shot with a heavy caliber through the lungs ... it's not far from the safari lodge." He nods and hangs up.

"They're coming," he says.

After making his way out of the bush, through vines and thorns, keeping eyes peeled for snakes and ill-tempered buffalos, Brightman sits in front of his computer, showing slides of animals in various positions of death. These are some of the other poached animals his unit has discovered. The buffalo will be added to the list.

He leans back and sighs: "You know, if a gang of poachers that we arrest have killed a buffalo and sold the meat in the communities illegally, they could make millions of Zimbabwe dollars [$10 using the official exchange rate]. But for the first offense, the fine is 250,000 Zimbabwe dollars.

"Of course," he adds, "it's meaningless to them. They're back in the bush."

Still, he says, he and his scouts must keep working. "Zimbabwe," he says, "she's a beautiful country."

Travel for the reporter and photographer was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (www.pulitzercenter.org).

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