Fresh from his disputed victory in Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections, President Robert Mugabe has turned his sights on the country’s wildlife reserves in a bid to feed thousands of malnourished villagers.
Zimbabwe’s national parks have been ordered to work with rural district councils to begin the wholesale slaughter of big game. National park rangers said they had already shot 10 elephants in the past week. The meat was barbecued at festivities to mark 25 years of independence. Four of the animals were reportedly shot in view of tourists near Lake Kariba, the largest man-made lake in Africa and a major wildlife haven.
Five years after ordering white-owned farms to be confiscated, the Mugabe regime has turned a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa into a famished land. An estimated 4 million rural poor suffer from food shortages.
The wildlife directive is a major blow to efforts by conservationists to rehabilitate a wildlife sector devastated by Mr Mugabe’s confiscation policy. The chaotic farm invasions saw party militants storming into conservation areas—private and state-owned—to slaughter animals. Unscrupulous South African hunters also joined in the looting, paying hefty kickbacks to politicians to go into conservation areas and shoot lions, leopards and cheetahs for trophies.
There had been high hopes among conservationists that Zimbabwe’s wildlife sector could be restored to its former glory. Certain species of wildlife in southern Zimbabwe are still abundant, and a trans-frontier park, allowing animals from Mozambique and the Kruger Park in South Africa to move freely in and out of Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park (home of the slaughtered elephants), had been set up.
Those conservationists have criticised the new measures and have been scathing about the killings of the elephants for the independence celebrations. A giraffe was also killed to feed peasants in the Binga area during the festivities, but the meat disappeared. It is believed that police and army officials appropriated the meat for themselves and it never reached the intended beneficiaries.
Farmers have relied on their own livestock in the past three years of famine, induced by the land seizures. Their plight has worsened since the government stopped international donors from distributing food aid in a move by Mr Mugabe to take charge of the process himself and punish those who did not support him.
Parks officials say many of the peasants living close to the reserves have already been venturing inside to hunt and kill animals with snares. But they said the impact of snare hunting by the villagers was limited compared to what would happen if armed national park rangers were allowed to enter conservation areas to secure meat to feed millions of hungry farmers.
“Killing of animals for any reasons other than conservation can be very disastrous,” said a parks official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The politicians think we have enough animals to feed people without wiping out different species. We as professionals don’t think so. We are talking to them [the politicians] and we hope we will reach consensus on protecting our wildlife heritage.”
Other government officials said that Mr Mugabe was so happy about his rural constituency—which ensured he achieved a majority of seats in last month’s parliamentary elections—that he wanted to do everything to please the voters. His party lost nearly all seats in urban areas, traditional strongholds of the opposition, and won in rural areas where it had created more constituencies. Mr Mugabe has also created a new ministry to look after the rural electorate.
Food ran out in Zimbabwe soon after the election and the country has experienced acute power and fuel shortages over the past two weeks. Basic commodities have disappeared from shops. Mr Mugabe has said he will jail manufacturers whom he accuses of creating shortages to encourage people to revolt.