Animals caught in middle of Zimbabwe land reform

Poaching by squatters in white-owned nature reserves worries conservationists.

Edson Chirhomo thought the waterbuck he had illegally bagged in a white-owned nature reserve was worth just a couple of bags of cornmeal. Caught red-handed with several bags of butchered waterbuck in the Chiredzi River conservancy, Mr. Chirhomo says his aim had been "to sell the meat to buy food, like corn meal, for my family. We don't have jobs."

He looked shocked when ranch owner Rob Style told him a foreign hunter would have paid $10,000 - the equivalent of about 2,000 large sacks of cornmeal - to hunt that same waterbuck, a type of antelope. When a woman asked Chirhomo whose land he was on and who owned the buck, he replied: "the bosses," indicating with a nod the trio of white ranchers standing nearby. Asked whether that implied he was stealing the buck, he shrugged: "The government said we can come onto this land."

Black Zimbabweans are being exhorted by President Robert Mugabe to take over land owned by whites, who possess most of the best farmland in the country. One of the many unforeseen effects of that anarchic land reallocation program is a wave of poaching in private game reserves.

The reserves were set up to promote tourism and save endangered wildlife while permitting controlled game hunting. Now they are free-for-all zones in which rhinoceroses, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, and other endangered species are being snared along with more abundant buck. And the savannah is being denuded of slow-growing mopani trees by people illegally cutting firewood, much of it for sale.

Even though the government has deemed the Chiredzi region too arid for cropping, squatters have invaded the private game reserves, seeking farmland. Mr. Style says it's

because the conservancies "are seen by the government as 'white islands.' "

Indeed, the story of the sole black partner in the 16-member Chiredzi reserve illustrates how so much of white Zimbabwe, estimated at 70,000 people, has failed to integrate politically and economically with the country's 12 million blacks.

Isaac Rukatya bought his farm in the sanctuary zone in the early 1980s. Yet, he says, his white neighbors waited until last month, when the land invasions began, to invite him to join the conservancy partnership. "They should have invited me a long time ago," he says.

Mr. Rukatya is chagrined that his recent entry into game farming has been marked by a steep decline in tourism due to the often-violent land invasions. "The country is losing foreign currency," he says.

Zimbabwe is losing more than tourist dollars and deutschemarks. In recent weeks four black rhinos, the subject of concerted international efforts to be saved from extinction, have been discovered in poachers' snares in the Save River Valley reserve. One rhino died but the others were extricated successfully. Among animals found dead in snares in the Chiredzi conservancy are a cheetah, a leopard, 156 impala, 64 warthogs, 19 zebras, seven sable antelopes, and four giraffes.

"Our numbers don't include the game that's been cut up and taken away by the poachers," says Raoul du Toit, a rhino expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature in Zimbabwe.

"They want the animals - any animals, it doesn't matter what - for meat, not for ivory or rhino horn as was the case in the past," says Style.

The conservancies grew out of the fact that, combined together, wildlife tourism and the sale of venison are more profitable than cattle-raising. But even though their individual landholdings were vast - more than 61,000 acres in Style's case - they weren't big enough to host all the wide-ranging bigger animals sought by tourists. So over several decades, ranchers in the south-east corner of Zimbabwe joined their properties by tearing down many of their fences, permitting the animals to roam freely. Style says the Chiredzi River conservancy is the oldest in Africa. It is to be part of a new transfrontier park linking government and private reserves in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

Style runs old-style hunting safaris for all manner of game, from fearsome Cape water buffalo to leopard, buck and bush pig. The national government issues him licenses which he then sells to trophy hunters who pay thousands of dollars for several days of tracking and shooting game. Annually the Styles sell 59 tons of venison caught under government license.

While some species are hunted, others are protected. The conservancies "have been a safe haven for endangered wildlife where we could build up their numbers," says Mr. Du Toit.

For example, black rhinos are now extinct in Zimbabwe's Zambezi River valley where they once thrived. Their numbers were decimated by poaching throughout the '80s. In 1992, a severe drought threatened the remaining 100 in the Zambezi zone. The national parks board lacked the money to care for the animals, so they were moved to the Save sanctuary, where their numbers have grown to 200.

Today, the sanctuary fences are being torn down by squatters. Wire from those fences is turned into simple snares stretched across bushes in the conservancies. An animal walks into a snare head-first and is strangled or may be caught by a leg or around the belly. Those not killed instantly may die later of related injuries. On a recent morning, Style's rangers found more than 50 snares.

As vultures circled overhead, the rangers wondered what to do with the three poachers caught with buck.

"I've come only for the meat, not to take land," says Chirhomo, arrested with his partner, Piwar Chikhami. Poacher Jack Banda was caught skinning an eland. Mr. Banda "is infamous, a lifelong poacher, and these land invasions have just made him bolder." says Style. The police arrested the men, but the ranchers were not optimistic that the poachers would be convicted and jailed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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