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SOS Rhino : In the News : No animal spared in Zimbabwe massacre
 

No animal spared in Zimbabwe massacre

 

By David Harrison in the Save Valley, Zimbabwe
(Filed: 22/06/2003)

The message fixed to a tree in the game reserve is stark: "Farm No 31," it reads, "Dealers in Death." It was put there by Zimbabwe's so-called war veterans to intimidate white landowners on the 850,000-acre Save Valley Conservancy, near the border with Mozambique.

The war veterans - unleashed by President Robert Mugabe to seize white-owned farms - are not, however, killing only people: they are slaughtering animals on an unprecedented scale.

Already they have forced out the owners and poached every animal on at least three of the 22 huge ranches that make up the conservancy. Now they are pouring on to neighbouring ranches and repeating the process.

The poaching is indiscriminate and no animal is spared. The main targets are antelope, wildebeest and zebra, but lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo and giraffe have all been killed by the poachers and their snares.

Wildlife authorities say that unless urgent action is taken to stop the slaughter, the conservancy's entire stock of wildlife will be destroyed within three years.

The pattern is being repeated on game reserves across the country with wildlife losses of more than 70 per cent reported in many areas. In the neighbouring Bubiana conservancy, four of the 10 ranches have been seized and cleared of wildlife.

Barberton Lodge, has lost more than 400 animals to poachers in the past three years, including 71 zebra, 63 kudu antelope and four giraffe. Fourteen black rhino, a critically endangered species, have been caught in snares, each requiring extensive surgery to save their lives.

The state-owned national parks have also been targeted by poachers. Four rhino have been killed in Hwange national park. Nationally, an estimated 100 black rhino have been slaughtered for their horns - which can fetch up to £60,000 - in the past three years.

Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, an umbrella group of wildlife charities, said: "If it carries on at this rate, within 10 years there will be no wildlife left anywhere in Zimbabwe."

As I travelled through the Save Valley last week there was an eerie quiet. "You used to see lions and leopards around here," one landowner told me. "And you could always hear them." No more. The lion and leopard have been silenced.

At one ranch I was shown row after row of skeletons - kept for research purposes - that belonged to animals killed by the poachers' snares.

The privately owned commercial reserves are being hit hardest. Invaders seize the land, which is largely unsuitable for farming. Desperate for food, the veterans lay metal traps to catch animals to eat or to sell to others.

Mike Clark, the chairman of the Commercial Farmers' Union in Masvingo province, said: "A couple of years ago this area was teeming with wildlife. Now you can walk around all day and not see a single animal."

Another ranch-owner, who declined to be named, said: "They see wildlife as meat on legs. We know there are food shortages but they are using the land-reform programme as an excuse for out-and-out theft and they won't leave until there is nothing left."

The poachers are ruthless and wardens on the conservancy face violent attacks if they intervene. Two weeks ago poachers forced the chief scout on the Humani reserve to lie on his stomach while they beat him viciously with sticks, breaking the bones in his feet.

The Humani reserve borders the three Save Valley ranches that have been "poached out" and is under severe pressure from the "settlers". Hundreds have poured in recently, building villages of small wooden huts.

Roger Whittall, 60, whose family has owned the reserve for more than 80 years, is unwilling to talk about the settlers for fear of a backlash. He will talk only about "the poachers" and says his biggest concern is that the penalties are too low.

" The police have made more efforts recently but the courts give poachers a rap over the knuckles and they are back poaching the next day," he said.

The penalty for killing wildlife is usually a fine of 5,000 Zimbabwe dollars (less than £4) or "community service", which can mean weeding the court's garden or washing the magistrate's car.

The upheaval in Zimbabwe has caused a near-collapse of the tourism industry, particularly of safaris, which were hugely popular until the land invasions began three years ago.

Game hunting - in which mostly American, European and South African hunters pay to shoot an officially approved quota of animals - is managing to stay afloat, although numbers are down by almost 50 per cent.

Mr Whittall, whose son Guy and nephew Andy are former Zimbabwe international cricketers, said his hunting business was down by "30 to 40 per cent". His wife, Anne, admits that times are "difficult" but says they have no plans to leave "unless it becomes really impossible. We have to hang on and hope".

Mr Rodrigues accused President Mugabe's government of doing nothing to prevent the tragedy. He said: "They are sitting back while our wildlife heritage is being wiped out and businesses are being destroyed."

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