Militarisation of Poaching in Zimbabwe

Ivory’s Curse

The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa

By Varun Vera and Thomas Ewing

April 2014

Born Free USA and C4Ads

Born Free USA commissioned this report from Washington-based C4Ads to better understand the role organised crime and corrupt government officials play in ivory trafficking across Africa.

Zimbabwe: Shadow Trade & Sanctions Evasion – Page 49 to 57

Brief summary

Organized hunting and poaching is a means for ZANU-PF elites to earn scarce foreign currency and circumvent Western sanctions, while deepening business ties with East Asian businessmen and resource exploiters.

Zimbabwe’s elephants are beginning to come under threat... and there have been some alarming incidents in 2013, notably at Hwange National Park in mid-2013, where about 100 elephants were poisoned when industrial-grade cyanide was dumped into watering holes, and along elephant trails.

Remains of a dead elephant that died after licking poisoned sand from a salt lick which poachers poisoned with cyanide in the Hwange National Park, 610 kilometers north of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe Photo: EPA [This photo was featured in The Telegraph (UK) on 20 October 2013]

Similar but smaller incidents have been reported across the country at Gonarezhou, Mana Pools, Zambezi, Charara, and Matsudona national parks.  Official government accounts admit to the poaching of at least 1,000 elephants between 2008 and 2012, which could mask already heavy poaching in Zimbabwe’s hinterlands.... Meanwhile, conditions in Zimbabwe – poverty, land redistributions, corruption, and opaque elite ties to Chinese natural resource exploiters – are such that if organized poaching were to worsen, it would do so quickly and with little warning....

A State of Impunity

Across Zimbabwe, economic operations on wildlife range areas are being seized by Zimbabwe’s political-military elites, including several on the United States sanctions lists. A wave of land seizures since 2008 has coincided with an upsurge in poaching and over-hunting.

Zimbabwe, while landlocked, is well connected to important trafficking centers in South Africa and Mozambique and has close economic and strategic ties to China. There are sizable Chinese investments and diasporas inside Zimbabwe, several air cargo routes, and close personal connections between Zimbabwean elites and Chinese natural resource exploiters. Altogether, they make for a worrying combination of incentives, threatening a turn away from traditional sustainable models of conservation towards short-term extraction.

In modern Zimbabwe, a small coterie of Mugabe associates and cronies control nearly 40% of the 14 million hectares of land seized from farms and conservancies, which has long been a key component of Zimbabwe’s patronage machine.

While ostensibly aimed at providing poor Zimbabweans with land, in practice senior ZANU-PF officials have benefited the most from this redistribution and many now own multiple tracts of land. However, today many of these same politicians have run their existing landholdings into ruin. Some are now turning to the few remaining profitable safari hunting and tourism companies, a worrying trend given their histories of resource exploitation. The value of these conservancies in ecological terms is incalculable, but even in dollar terms they are significant: US$45 million in revenues was declared in 2013, which is a fraction of the value that can be captured by abusing hunting quotas or entering the illicit ivory trade....

Revenues accrued from the wildlife concessions being seized more often than not go straight into personal and foreign bank accounts, and not towards conservation. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of abuse on seized lands. Shuvai Mahofa, a former provincial MP is often accused in local newspapers of running hunting and commercial bushmeat operations on protected lands.  The general attitude, however, was perhaps best expressed by Masvingo Governor Titus Maluleke, another forcibly imposed beneficiary of Save Valley: “We are not interested in wildlife, we do not want to learn about the business. We want cash.”....

Elephant carcass on a truck in Harare suspected to have been killed to feed people attending Independence Celebrations Source: Johnny Rodrigues, Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force

ZANU-PF officials with wildlife interests listed in the report include Webster Shamu, Minister of State for Policy Implementation, Jocelyn Chiwenga, the former wife of Commander of the Zimbabwean Defence Forces, Constantine Chiwenga, Ignatius Chombo, Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, Major General Engelbert Rugeje, Chief of Staff of the Zimbabwe National Army, Francis Nhema, former Minister of Environment, and Obert Mpofu, former Mines and Mineral Development Minister.....

The Chinese Factor

Zimbabwe is a major Chinese success story in Africa, and there are extremely close business ties between Chinese natural resource companies and Zimbabwe’s political, military, and intelligence officials. China is today Mugabe’s external ally of choice; it is the largest exporter of arms to Zimbabwe, accounting for 39% of conventional weapons transfers between 2000 and 2009. The cash-strapped Mugabe government is extremely dependent on Chinese aid and investment, and has allowed large Chinese investment in natural resource projects, from the Marange diamond mines to coal mining projects to the construction of facilities for Zimbabwe’s army....

Chinese companies are prominent in various new projects, and many are expanding into environmentally sensitive elephant range areas....   Several Chinese companies have secured lucrative mining and construction contracts in proximity to protected areas, particularly around Hwange National Park....


Aggregate trends in Zimbabwe point to a worrying future for its elephants. Poverty, hunger, the entrance of connected political elites into wildlife areas, and the expansion of Chinese interests along the periphery of elephant ranges, all suggest that Zimbabwe could quite soon become a poaching hotspot.

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