5 May 2002

'War veterans' wipe out Zimbabwe's rhino

The black rhino, a highly-endangered species, is being wiped out in Zimbabwe, one of its last strongholds in Africa, according to farmers and conservationists. The animals are being killed for their horns, each worth £45,000 - more than their weight in gold - on the Far East market where they are crushed into powder for traditional medicines. The slaughter centres on the giant Bubiana conservancy, in the south of Zimbabwe, where 104 of the country's last 400 black rhino live on 400,000 acres and from where at least two owners have been driven out by the chief whip of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF Party. "It is dire," said Johnny Rodrigues, the director of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. "When you look at what is going on, you want to cry. They're slaughtering everything." Mr Rodrigues estimates that 30 to 40 of the Bubiana rhino are now dead. Bubiana and other smaller private conservancies intervened when the country's black rhino population fell from 20,000 in the mid-1970s to 263 in 1995. The slaughter in Zimbabwe's national parks was a result of civil war, poaching and corruption. By the mid-1990s, the Mugabe government realised that the bankrupt national parks system could not save the animals and asked white farmers in marginal agricultural areas to form conservancies to set up breeding populations. By careful management, the conservancies increased the national herd to about 400. There are another 2,000 black rhino, mainly in South Africa, with tiny, threatened herds in Namibia and Kenya.

The devastation is not restricted to the rhino. In the 18 months to early January, about 30,000 large animals had been killed at Bubiana, including one black rhino calf. One of the owners driven from the conservancy said: "It's finished: Bubiana will be depleted of all game within a month. The remaining elephants have snares around their feet. The West and the World Wide Fund for Nature don't appear to give a damn." In 1993, the Bubiana owners removed internal fences and erected external barriers strong enough to keep in large animals. They took in 36 black rhino that the government wanted them to use as a breeding population. Each farmer was allowed to run a few cattle, although game farming was the overriding aim. When in March the war veterans invaded, the cattle were slaughtered and the owners threatened. Two have now abandoned their farms and one of them, Peter Abbott, has gone into hiding. "War vets killed Peter's cattle in front of him while police watched," said one of Mr Abbott's neighbours. "He had an internationally renowned fishing camp. It has been trashed by war vets who are netting the lake for bass and bream, drying them and selling them. The lake had a popular hippo, Henrietta. They've killed her."

The story is repeated throughout the country. Wally Herbst, the national chairman of the Wildlife Producers' Association, the private game owners' organisation, said 40 per cent of Zimbabwe's wildlife may have been killed in the past 18 months. "It's a result of land invasions, resultant bad land use, the collapse of any rule of law, and game scouts being threatened and chased away," he said. "There's a huge increase in people invading openly with vehicles and firearms. It can't hold much longer, the infrastructure is collapsing." Even the government admits that at least 50 of the remaining 400 black rhino have been killed this year. Francis Nhema, the environment minister, said that £30 million would be lost this year from the collapse of the hunting industry. He said that wildlife worth £1.5 million had been poached in the past four months. A report on Mr Rodrigues's desk from Lynwood Ranching, a southern Zimbabwe conservancy owned by seven farmers, said that seven of its 36 black rhino had been snared recently. "One baby rhino has been burnt to death," it said. "Meat can be seen drying in almost every settler village. One patrol found seven kudu, zebra and eland in a single snareline. When we sent in helicopters to dart rhino injured in snares, the deputy director of national parks assured us of his immediate response. We have not heard another word from him." (ZWNews / Sunday Telegraph, SA)

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