By Tichaona Sibanda
Plans by the government to pardon villagers in Tsholotsho, who surrender the toxic cyanide that has been used to kill elephants in the Hwange national park, has raised disquiet among opposition MPs.
Only individuals with mining licences can purchase the dangerous substance from reputable chemical stores and there are suspicions that the same people with mining rights in and around Hwange supplied the chemicals to the villagers.
During a government task force visit to the district last week Saviour Kasukuwere, the Environment Minister, assured the villagers that Home Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi had agreed not to punish them if they handed in the cyanide still in their possession.
However the newly elected MDC-T MP for Tsholotsho, Roselene Nkomo, has questioned the decision by Kasukuwere to pardon the villagers before they disclose what they know about the scandal.
Nkomo told SW Radio Africa on Monday that ‘someone out there is a culprit’ over this heinous act to poison the elephants. She said there is an ‘individual or individuals’ liable for the poaching and government should get to the bottom of the issue before pardoning anybody.
‘The task force has started on a bad note. They fly into my constituency without having the courtesy to inform me of their mission. Why they decided to sideline me I don’t know, but this is a national problem that needs input from everybody,’ Nkomo said.
The MP said she will raise the issue in Parliament and seek assurances from government that they will investigate the matter, before they decide to pardon the villagers who may hold so much information on the real culprits.
The villagers are reportedly being exploited by syndicates who pay them as little as US$500 to kill elephants, with the syndicates selling a pair of tusks for as much as US$17,000.
Over 100 elephants have died after consuming salt laced with cyanide in the last two months, amid reports that poisoning of elephants has been ongoing for over five years now.
There are suggestions that instead of investigating possible links of politicians and influential businessmen to international ivory smuggling rings operating in Zimbabwe, government is attempting to cover-up, perhaps fearful of the powerful figures involved in the poaching syndicates.
Already, there are allegations that police officers are accepting bribes from suspected poachers. Recently two suspected kingpins of the syndicate, Clever Khumalo (44) and Sipho Mafu (54) disclosed during court proceedings that they bribed police officers to release their vehicle which had been impounded.
The vehicle was stuffed with ivory. Both Khumalo and Mafu were charged with delivering or offering toxic substances, and also of illegally possessing ivory in contravention of the Parks and Wildlife Act and the Environmental Management Act.
In written testimonies the alleged poachers said they committed the offence in the company of several people from Bulawayo and Harare. No other ring leader has been arrested but a number of policemen have been picked up for bribery and there’s an ongoing trial in Bulawayo.
Simon Muchemwa, our correspondent in Harare, told us the recent discovery of elephant poisoning in Hwange is just the tip of an iceberg as big names and politicians are allegedly involved in ivory trade.
‘There are reports that this business involves rich people and politicians who have formed a very sophisticated network. How do you explain the smugglers managing to transport their contraband along the major highways where there are plenty of roadblocks manned by the police… and to imagine they have been doing it for years,’ Muchemwa explained.
He said while the media has been pushing the government to get to the bottom of the poaching, the authorities seem to be very reluctant to do so because of the powerful figures involved.
Muchemwa said it would be very hard to eradicate ‘the poaching business’ because it involves senior officials in government, the police force, army, CIO and the wildlife department.
There are suspicions that a large number of police officers are on the syndicates’ payroll and that they receive kickbacks that are at least three times their police salaries.
The syndicates have survived this long because they get tipped off about the government’s or police’s plans well in advance, according to one source close to the wildlife department. SW Radio Africa