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Thursday
Sep252008

Poachers walk free as assault on rhinos in Zimbabwe escalates

A female Black Rhino, recovering following veterinary treatment for a gunshot wound, with her calf Click photo to enlarge © Lowveld Rhino Project / WWF  Harare, Zimbabwe, 25 September—A breakdown in law enforcement against rhino poaching and horn smuggling is threatening the success of more than a decade’s work restoring rhino populations in Zimbabwe.

Typical of the problem is the recent release of a gang of four Zimbabwean poachers who admitted to killing 18 rhinos in five different areas of central Zimbabwe, including a semi-tame group of Black Rhinos slaughtered in their pens at Imire Safari Ranch.

The poachers, also alleged to have been involved in several armed robberies and arrested in possession of illegal firearms, were initially denied bail and it was reported that the four had received lengthy jail sentences. However, WWF was recently informed by authorities that the poachers were subsequently granted bail, were freed and immediately absconded.

Rhino poaching has been increasing throughout Zimbabwe including in the Lowveld Conservancies in southern Zimbabwe, home to three-quarters of the country’s surviving rhinos and host to a rhino conservation project involving WWF, the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe, the private sector and several other conservation agencies including the International Rhino Foundation.

Tom Milliken, the Regional Director of TRAFFIC’s programme in east and southern Africa, warned: “In terms of the CITES treaty on wildlife trade, Zimbabwe is now in the spotlight and an international task force will be visiting shortly to investigate its performance in rhino conservation.

“TRAFFIC has sponsored initiatives to improve the country’s law enforcement capabilities, but sadly most investigations appear to have collapsed without successful prosecutions.”

According to Raoul du Toit, WWF’s rhino conservation project manager for the Lowveld Conservancies: “Since January 2000, approximately 70 rhinos have been killed in the Lowveld conservancies, and the losses are now rapidly mounting.

“About 20 rhinos were shot in the Lowveld during 2008, which points to how this problem is escalating.

“Prior to 2000, for a period of seven years, there was no rhino poaching whatsoever.”

When the poaching first flared up, it was linked to the unplanned occupations of sections of the Lowveld Conservancies by subsistence farmers and primarily involved rhinos getting caught in wire snares that were set out to catch wildlife for meat consumption.

Now the poaching has reached commercial levels, with poachers not only killing rhinos in snares but also shooting them for their horns, without taking the meat.

“WWF and other non-government organizations involved in rhino conservation maintain very constructive relations with the Zimbabwean wildlife authorities,” says du Toit, “But there is growing frustration over Zimbabwe’s poor performance in law enforcement for rhino crimes, which inevitably gives rise to concerns about corruption.”

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