Rhino Poaching in Zimbabwe – the solution!

HARARE- Tinyiko Chauke, 43, is no stranger in the battle to protect Zimbabwe’s wildlife population. A game ranger for 18 years, he has arrested poachers and rescued wounded animals from snares, a risk he has learnt to live with.

He has witnessed rhinos multiply in great numbers, but in the past three years, poaching has spiraled out of control. Carcasses, de-horned and peppered with bullets, have become a common sight.

In his first encounter with a heavily armed gang in a rhino sanctuary in Masvingo Province in 2008, he and his colleagues survived a ferocious exchange of gunfire. Ever since, Chauke believes the worst fears of conservationists are about to be realised- part of Africa’s famous Big Five animals is in danger of extinction.

Francis Nhema, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, says his department is under-equipped to properly carry out its duties, and has described poaching in the country as “the wanton destruction of wildlife.”

According to latest figures, Zimbabwe has about 400 black rhinos out of a total of 700 rhinos in its game reserves.

Sensing a looming environmental disaster, Zimbabwean authorities have embarked in rhino de-horning, but local conservation groups are doubtful about the effectiveness of the move.

Chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), Jonny Rodrigues, said poisoning the horn instead would be the “effective way” to reduce poaching. De-horning alone would be far from the answer as a lot of people have resorted to poaching due to widespread unemployment, he said.

“It’s all well to arrest poachers but so long as there is a market for the horn, poachers will always try their luck. By poisoning it, you target the actual market,” Rodrigues, who has spent the better part of his life conserving wildlife in Zimbabwe, told the Zimbabwe Mail.

If a small number were to be poisoned, buyers would never be sure whether they purchased a poisoned one or not. Once they become aware of the danger, demand for it would be eased and in turn illegal rhino hunting activities, he said.

He added: “When the poachers track a rhino and spot it, they don’t get close enough to see if it has a horn or not. Many de-horned ones have been killed.”

The Sebakwe Trust, which runs a black rhino conservancy near Gweru in the Midlands, also says the de-horning policy has been a failure. “Over 80 de-horned rhino were killed by poachers in 1993. In addition, dehorning is a very expensive exercise,” the trust said.

Due to re-growth of the horn stumps, de-horning has to be repeated on an annual basis, exposing the animals to the risk of death from the stress associated with immobilisation and capture, it added.

The poison idea was first mooted in South Africa earlier this year, among other methods that are still being debated, including legalisation of trade in the horn and use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to monitor the animals’ movements.

Conservationists in Zimbabwe are already installing GPS transmitters on rhinos, but Rodrigues said the ZCTF was not in favour of legalising its trade because this would mean “harvesting the rhino’s natural defense mechanism”. In addition, when a female gives birth, she needs her horn to easily move the calf around.

But Save the Rhino International has rejected the poisoning method. It said this would be aimed at killing or injuring those using the horn and must be regarded as attempted murder.

“Yes, it’s illegal to poach rhinos and trade the horn. China and Vietnam are signatories to the CITES agreement banning its trade, but you are not entitled to kill them,” Cathy Lawson, a spokesperson for Save the Rhino told the Zimbabwe Mail.

Rather, governments should channel funds into game parks for equipment and staff and impose stiffer sentences on poachers, she said

“Poisoning…distracts us from the real needs: more resources for anti-poaching and monitoring teams; training the judiciary to understand the seriousness of wildlife crime ; a coordinated and better-funded effort by Interpol, national police forces and illegal trade investigators; and trying to reduce the demand for horn.”

The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) has lauded the arrest by police and eventual denial of bail to eight rhino poachers who included Zimbabweans, Zambians and Congolese nationals last month, saying this would help bring “the conservation reputation of the country back on track.”

A recent report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) cited a sharp rise in rhino poaching in Zimbabwe and South Africa, fuelled by organised crime cartels that smuggle its horns to China and other East Asian markets for alleged use in medicine.

Since 2006, the neighbouring countries have accounted for 95 percent of Africa’s rhino death toll due to illegal hunting, CITES has said. The report also noted that poachers are now equipped with military-style skills, and use methods that range from higher calibre rifles to veterinary immobilising drugs among others.