Poachers walk free as assault on Zimbabwe rhinos escalates

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A breakdown in law enforcement against rhino poaching and horn smuggling in Zimbabwe is threatening the success of more than a decade's work bringing rhino populations back up to healthy levels.

Typical of the problem is the recent release of a gang of four Zimbabwean rhino poachers who admitted to killing 18 rhinos in five different areas of central Zimbabwe, including a semi-tame group of black rhinos slaughtered in their pens at Imire Safari Ranch.

The poachers, also alleged to have been involved in a number of armed robberies and arrested with several illegal firearms, were initially denied bail and it was reported that the four had received lengthy jail sentences. However, WWF was recently informed by authorities that the poachers were subsequently granted bail, were freed and immediately absconded.

Rhino poaching has been increasing throughout Zimbabwe including in the Lowveld Conservancies in southern Zimbabwe, home to three-quarters of the country's surviving rhinos and host to a rhino conservation project involving WWF, the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe, the private sector and several other conservation agencies including the International Rhino Foundation.

“Since January 2000, approximately 70 rhinos have been killed in the Lowveld conservancies, and the losses are now rapidly mounting,” said Raoul du Toit, Lowveld rhino conservation project manager for the Lowveld Conservancies. “About 20 rhinos were shot in the Lowveld during 2008, which points to how this problem is escalating,

“Prior to 2000, for a period of seven years, there was no rhino poaching whatsoever.”

When the poaching first flared up, it was linked to the unplanned occupations of sections of the Lowveld Conservancies by subsistence farmers and primarily involved rhinos getting caught in wire snares that were set out to catch wildlife for meat consumption.

Now the poaching has reached commercial levels, with poachers not only killing rhinos in snares but also shooting them for their horns, without taking the meat.

“WWF and other non-government organisations involved in rhino conservation maintain very constructive relations with the Zimbabwean wildlife authorities,” says du Toit, “But there is growing frustration over Zimbabwe’s poor performance in law enforcement for rhino crimes, which inevitably gives rise to concerns about corruption.”

Although a few poachers from Zambia have been arrested and convicted after cross-border raids into National Parks in northern Zimbabwe, not a single Zimbabwean poacher has been convicted during the current wave of internal rhino poaching.

The few Zimbabwean poachers arrested, have subsequently been released on bail, (equivalent to a few American cents), and have then absconded, or have evaded prosecution in the courts.

“The lack of enforcement and increased poaching pressure in Zimbabwe now threaten to reverse the excellent trends in rhino populations of recent years,” said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF-International’s Species Programme. “WWF calls on the authorities in Zimbabwe to take much stronger action against the internal poaching networks or the recent progress made in rhino conservation in Zimbabwe will be lost.”

Tom Milliken, the Regional Director of TRAFFIC’s programme in east and southern Africa, warns: “In terms of the CITES treaty on wildlife trade, Zimbabwe is now in the spotlight and an international task force will be visiting shortly to investigate its performance in rhino conservation.

“TRAFFIC has sponsored initiatives to improve the country’s law enforcement capabilities, but sadly most investigations appear to have collapsed without successful prosecutions.”

Additional Notes:

• WWF has been working to conserve rhinos for over 40 years. The current African Rhino Programme, launched in 1997, provides technical and financial support to 12 rhino conservation projects across Africa and operates in partnerships with key African rhino range states. Detailed information is available at www.panda.org/species.
• TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, works to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature. TRAFFIC is a joint programme of WWF and IUCN - The International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
• CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. With 173 member governments worldwide, CITES is the largest wildlife conservation treaty in the world. All species of rhinoceros are listed on the CITES appendices.
• In 1997, there were an estimated 8,450 white rhinos and 2,600 black rhinos remaining in the wild. Today, there are 14,500 white rhinos and nearly 4,000 of the more endangered black rhinos. Recent conservation progress led to expansion of both species of African rhinos in the Lowveld region, to current totals of 400 black rhinos and 150 white rhinos. (In Zimbabwe as a whole there are 500 black rhinos and 300 white rhinos).
• Rhinos bear distinctive nasal horns, which are formed from a compression of keratin, melanin and calcium, a substance akin to hair or fingernails that continues to grow during the lifetime of the animal. Rhino horns continued to be used illegally in traditional medicines in Asia and as a carving material for fashioning handles for traditional daggers in Yemen. In traditional Asian medicines, rhino horn is not used as an aphrodisiac, but rather in conjunction with other substances to reduce fever. As a commodity, rhino horn is not worth its weight in gold, a notion that stimulates poaching and corruption, but remains untrue.

About WWF
WWF is one of the world's largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with almost 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption.