At war with poachers
Zambian poachers armed with AK47s and 303 rifles killed at least 14 elephants and one rhino in Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Chizarira National Parks in a space of two weeks and got away with six elephant tusks and one rhino horn, exposing a slackening of patrols by the authority.
Four cunning poachers made an incursion into Chizarira National Park on October 7, 2006 and shot 11 elephants with a 303 rifle at one watering hole in what Zimparks rangers described as a “culling operation”.
Armed National Parks rangers tracked down the poachers as they tried to make their way back into Zambia, shooting one of them and recovering 22 elephant tasks worth over US$220,000.
The poachers left one 303 rifle, two pots and an empty magazine at a makeshift camp in the park, before crossing into Zambia, which has become a common refuge for poachers killing endangered species in Hwange, Chizarira, Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Parks.
Barely a week after the incident, which left National parks confident that they were in control of the situation in Zimbabwe’s northern parks, a signal came in on the Hwange National Park’s Main Camp radio informing them of gunshots heard in the Sinamatela area of the park.
Infantry teams of rangers from Hwange Main Camp and Sinamatela, with the aerial back-up of a helicopter from tour operator Shearwater Adventure, surrounded the perimeter of the area from which the gunshots had been heard and started looking for spoor.
“We ran into a young rhino that had been shot and dehorned, and then followed the spoor, which indicated there were at least three poachers carrying something heavy,” said one of the National Parks rangers.
Another team ran into a makeshift camp in which they recovered three elephant tails, fresh game and food in Namibian packaging, leading them to suspect that the poachers were Namibian, or had been operating in parts of Namibia.
They followed the spoor and caught up with the poachers, resulting in a fierce exchange of gunfire between rangers and three poachers armed with AK47s. The experienced poachers returned fire and cleared their escape routes.
“We shot one of the poachers, and they fled in the direction of the Botswana border,” said one of the rangers, “Members of our team assumed that since one of the poachers had been shot, they would not be able to get away.”
On the next day, they realised that the poachers had crossed into Botswana, where they headed west for six kilometers before heading north for Zimbabwe’s border with Zambia.
“We lost the poachers spoor at a vlei in the park, and then caught up with it as it crossed into Botswana,” said one of the rangers, adding, “We suspect that the three were carrying three elephant tusks and at least one rhino horn.”
They tried to cut the poachers routes of escape and mounted an ambush on the banks of Zambezi river, where they spent hours waiting for the poachers to cross before they were told that they had been a day behind.
Anti-poaching patrols have been handicapped by erratic fuel supplies in some parks, and the lack of effective surveillance strategies has resulted in an increase in the incidence of poachers setting up camp in the parks.
Zimbabwe seems to be losing the anti-poaching war against Zambian poachers. The experienced poachers, who call themselves “international hunters” have reduced Zambia’s elephant population from a staggering 150,000 to only 20,000 over a period of less than 30 years.
Zambia’s elephant population stood at 150 000 in 1979 and poachers in the country reduced it to 43,000 by 1989. They have since reduced that by more than half to 20,000 and have started poaching in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, which still hold the region’s largest elephant populations.
Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia are the only countries in the region that have maintained growing elephant populations, with Zimbabwe’s population having grown threefold from only 30,000 in 1979 to 89,128 in 2006. Botswana has seen its numbers swelling sixfold from 20,000 to 121,866 in the same period.
The region’s estimated elephant population currently stands at close to half a million, compared to over 700,000 in 1979. Top among the countries on which poaching has had a dramatic effect on populations is the DRC, which saw its population decline from 377,000 in 1979 to 49,000 in 2006.
Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildife Authority spokesman Major Edward Mbewe vowed to intensify efforts to defend the country’s natural heritage from the marauding poachers, and said the authority had since set up anti-poaching call-up teams made up of Zimbabwe Republic Police and Parks rangers.