By Alex T. Magaisa
The elephant is a creature of majestic beauty and elegance, adored and respected by most people and, in many ways, a reminder of a remote world, about which we can only imagine. Endowed with great intelligence and a huge faculty for memory, the giant of the jungle saunters with remarkable grace that belies its stature.
Among the locals of Zimbabwe, a clan is named after it: Nzou/Samanyanga– they of big horns, is their totem, a symbol of greatness, leadership and gentleness. Those who are carry the totem do so with great pride. One of Zimbabwe’s great sons, iconic musician Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi is a proud member of that clan. One of his songs bears lyrics that honour and praise the elephant: “Nyararai henyu Samanyanga, inga ndimi mhuka huru wani”, he sings. (Be still, the Great Elephant, for aren’t you the biggest of them all?).
Sadly, this is no time for the Zimbabwean elephant to be still. It is in grave danger, going by the tragic events of the last two years in Zimbabwe’s national parks. While the world’s attention was captured by the tragedy of Cecil, the lion, in July this year, after its killing at the hands of American dentist, Walter Palmer, a bigger calamity has been quietly unfolding in Zimbabwe’s national parks, away from the eyes of the world.
Just last week, 22 elephants were found dead in Hwange, Zimbabwe’s largest national park that hosts thousands of wild animals, including elephants. They must have died painful deaths, having partaken poisoned water, at the hands of a despicable gang of poachers.
The method of execution is very simple, yet so cruel. Ruthless gangs pour cyanide into watering holes strewn around the park, where elephants are known to frequent. Cyanide is a highly poisonous chemical, used in processing gold. It kills in the most painful, yet silent fashion, a method that helps poachers to avoid the attention of game rangers, whose mandate is to guard the animals from danger.
When the elephants come to quench their thirst, little do they know, for all their intelligence, that they will be swallowing the dose of death. And one by one, they succumb to the corrosive effect of cyanide. It eats their insides, until they collapse and die. The poachers emerge from the lair and cut off the tusks, for it is those big horns, which yield precious ivory products, that they are after.
There are people in this world that place a high premium on ivory. Some say they value it for ornamental purposes, others say for medicinal purposes. It is the pursuit of vanity, human vanity in some communities, and of course, the wealth that comes to those who trade the ivory, that drives the slaughter of elephants.
But because of the risk it poses to elephants, trade in ivory is a controlled and restricted activity, guided by the rules of CITES, the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which rightly classify elephants among the most endangered animals. The unscrupulous try to operate outside these rules, to create an underworld of criminal gangs.
And so it is that elephant poaching has been a big problem for years, not just in Zimbabwe but across African countries that host these giants of nature – Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, are some of them.
Earlier this year, in March the Kenyan Government burnt 15 tonnes of ivory, with a black market value of $30 million, that had been confiscated from poachers. This was portrayed as a gesture of disapproval http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-31716134 France, the US and China had also done the same according to the UK Guardian newspaper report.
There is controversy over burning ivory stockpiles as a way of handling trade in ivory. Some question the value and efficacy of this gesture, saying authorities might find better use for the confiscated ivory to generate income for the poor.
But others hail the gesture saying it helps make a point: that the governments would not tolerate poaching or even benefitting from the proceeds of poaching. It’s a controversial issue that divides opinion in an on-going debate on combatting poaching.
Back in Zimbabwe, the killing of 22 elephants a couple of weeks ago in Hwange is just the latest in a continuing tragedy http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/03/us-zimbabwe-press-arrest-idUSKCN0SS10X20151103.
Just a fortnight before, 32 elephants had been slaughtered in the same disgusting manner. They drank water laced with cyanide and died. And 2 years ago, the disaster was every bigger. 300 elephants were killed by the same method.
At the time, Government Ministers went on a helicopter tour of the national park to witness the carnage. Elephant carcasses were strewn all over the park. In all cases, watering holes had been laced with cyanide. At the time, Government talked tough and promised action. Yet 2 years on, the tragedy continues, unabated.
The reason is very simple: ivory trade is big business and it has big people involved. It is highly lucrative, especially in the Asian markets, where ivory fetches high value. Despite pretences from senior people in governments, there is no serious intent to clamp down on poaching.
The nasty little men who do the poaching are simply the foot-soldiers at the bottom of the food chain. They get the crumbs, although they do the dirty work. The top of the food chain is occupied by bigger and more powerful characters, in governments and in business across the world. It’s a criminal syndicate on the scale of the drug-peddling mafia. The illicit industry itself is worth billions of dollars.
Silencing the media
This week, 3 journalists from The Sunday Mail, a Zimbabwean state weekly, were arrested and detained by Zimbabwean police, for allegedly publishing falsehoods after their expose of the criminal syndicate responsible for the poaching in Hwange and the killing of the elephants.
“Top cop fingered in poaching saga”, screamed the headline of their top story last Sunday .The report alleged that a senior cop along with his juniors and wildlife officers, those charged with protecting the elephants, were part of a big criminal syndicate responsible for poisoning and killing the elephants of Hwange.
“The question is, if rangers and cops were deployed to watering holes which were detoxed barely a week ago, how did the poachers poison the elephants?” a source was quoted by the paper as asking. “This shows that the rangers are involved … it’s a huge and powerful syndicate”, the source said.
A day after the paper was published the editor and his two reporters who wrote the story were arrested and detained by the police. It is not clear, at the time of writing, under which law the journalists were arrested. It could be criminal defamation, despite the fact that the country’s Constitutional Court has previously deemed the law invalid under the old constitution. Bizarrely, a judgment on its validity under the new constitution is pending.
It could also be the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a highly restrictive and controversial law, which among other things, criminalises the so-called publication of falsehoods by the media. It has been the subject of serious criticism since its enactment in 2002, mainly for violating the rights to free speech and media freedom, both of which are specifically guaranteed under the new Zimbabwean Constitution. It often been deployed against journalists from the private media, usually in politically-related matters but rather uniquely and unusually in this case, it has been deployed against State media journalists, showing once again, the double-edged character of oppressive laws.
If there is indeed a sophisticated international syndicate behind the slaughter of the elephants, then it seems clear that the purpose of the arrests of journalists is simply to stifle and silence the media. This kind of clampdown on those who expose poaching is not unusual. Back in the 1980s, an officer in the Zimbabwe National Army, Captain Nleya, disappeared after reportedly threatening to expose sordid details of criminal syndicates behind poaching in Hwange. He disappeared without trace. Up to this day, his relatives do not have a clue what happened to him.
Thus the 3 journalists are only the latest victims among those who have tried to expose the big hand in the criminal underworld of big game poaching, with elephants and rhinos being the main targets. But cyanide poisoning is particularly disgusting because it’s not only their targeted elephants and rhino that are affected but all animals that use those watering holes and thus the entire ecosystem.
Zimbabwe has over the years done very well to protect wildlife. The efforts of conservationists have been commendable. But corruption in the sector has been rampant and demand in China and other Asian markets have only fuelled more poaching.
Ironically, at the same time that the journalists have been arrested in Zimbabwe, the South China Morning Post reports that 2 Zimbabwean smugglers were caught at Hong Kong International Airport carrying 36kg of ivory worth US$46,450 http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/1875286/two-smugglers-zimbabwe-caught-36kg-ivory-worth-hk360000 17kg of this ivory were in the hand luggage of one of the men.
Back in September, another Zimbabwean had been stopped at the same airport, with 13kg of suspected ivory products worth almost US$16,800 earlier that month Hong Kong officers had intercepted 51kg of suspected ivory products worth us$65,805. They were in 2 airmail parcels from Zimbabwe. A few days before, 24kg of ivory worth US$30,970 had also been discovered hidden in a parcel, also from Zimbabwe.
It is plain from these figures that there is something big and criminal going on between Zimbabwe and China. The arrested journalists also alleged that the poaching was funded by a gang of Asian businessmen and the say they have names, which they withheld from publishing. China is said to be the biggest consumer of smuggled ivory.
As they said, cyanide is a controlled and expensive chemical. Ordinary villagers have no easy access to such a chemical unless some top and better connected officials are involved. Blaming the poaching on poor villagers is merely scapegoating.
Instead, Zimbabwe has to face the problem of corruption generally, and in the wildlife sector, in particular. Corruption has reached alarming levels in Zimbabwe. A recent survey by Afrobarometer, a regional think-tank, showed that 68% of Zimbabweans thought corruption had increased over the past year.
In total, 89% reported that they perceived members of the police service to be involved in corruption, while 85% thought the same of government officials. 80% believed government had done badly in combating corruption.
Worryingly, asked why people don’t report corruption, 25% said they were afraid of the consequences of reporting, 20% thought it wouldn’t make any difference as nothing would be done about it, while a further 14% actually thought corruption was normal as everyone does it. (see:http://www.afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/media-briefing/zimbabwe/zim_r6_presentation3_corruption.pdf )
These are grim statistics. They indicate an alarming level of hopelessness in the system’s ability and willingness to combat corruption. The latest arrest of the journalists who tried to expose corruption will only reinforce these beliefs among Zimbabweans. It doesn’t help that the major driving market for poached products, China, is itself a haven for corruption, too. If anything, the illegal ivory trade is also illustrative of an unhealthy and exploitative relationship between China and Zimbabwe and in all this, not only is wildlife at risk, but so are fundamental freedoms, as is illustrated by the journalists’ arrests.
The fact of the matter is that Zimbabwe’s elephant poaching problem is only going to escalate in the coming years, unless Government demonstrates seriousness and a commitment to stamp out corruption. Arresting journalists exposing the problem is not going to help. Wildlife conservation, one of Zimbabwe’s success stories in a narrative that is strewn with well-known political and economic calamity, is fast disintegrating and losing its lustre.
And while the rest of world kowtows to China for economic leverage, failure to condemn its role in the illegal trade of ivory will continue to pose a huge threat to the precious elephant herd in Zimbabwe and Africa, generally. It is important to tackle the market for ivory and a huge part of it is in China and Asia, generally.
The people behind the carnage in Hwange are not simple poachers. There is a huge international criminal syndicate here, and it’s not going to be tackled by a chronically corrupt system in Zimbabwe. Otherwise, at this rate, future generations will be talking about African elephants, those majestic giants, the same way we talk about dinosaurs, probably with a new park at Disneyworld, in Florida, reminding them of the past, but also, of a greedy and careless generation that did nothing to stop the carnage of elephants.
All in all, Zimbabwe has lost nearly 400 elephants in the last 2 years. It has lost them to cyanide – cruel and disgusting deaths. Unlike Cecil, the lion, whose killing evoked an outpouring of sympathy across the world, these elephants did not have names.
There are no tourists or researchers telling a good story about each of those dead elephants. But that they have no names doesn’t make them any less important or less deserving of the world’s attention. The future will never forgive us if we stand by and do nothing. It starts by remembering the journalists, Mabasa Sasa, Brian Chitemba and Tinashe Farawo – at least we have their names.