Almost 2,000 elephants have been killed in and around the Hwange national park in north-west Zimbabwe this year, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force claimed, adding that the country’s national parks department intended to authorise the shooting of 1,000 more by the end of the year.
Johnny Rodrigues, the ZCTF’s chairman, said the information had come from ex-employees of the parks authority, and the killings were the result of a combination of hunting, poaching, and an alleged culling programme that he believes is being used as a cover for illegal ivory trade.
“The actual employees can shoot these animals in lieu of wages,” he claimed. “It’s the only way they can survive.
“With the economic meltdown these guys are getting paid about seven US dollars a month, way below the poverty line. They shoot the animals and sell the meat to the locals.”
He said that under a population management programme adults with large tusks were being chosen for shooting, and their skins and ivory were not being delivered to the wildlife authority’s central stores.
“The people have to survive, there’s no food in the market so what are they going to do? They are going to shoot the animals, that you can understand. But this is something else. Where is it? There’s a market somewhere and somebody’s buying all the stuff.
“It is heartbreaking that the wildlife is paying the biggest price of all in the economic collapse of this country.”
International authorities, though, cautioned that a number of “alarmist” and “exaggerated” reports have been made about the wildlife situation in Zimbabwe in the past.
Zimbabwe has one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, estimated by various international organisations at around 100,000 animals—although Mr Rodrigues puts the figure at about 45,000.
However a spokesman for Traffic International, the global anti-wildlife- trafficking organisation, said: “Elephant numbers appear to be stable or currently slightly increasing in Zimbabwe at the moment.”
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Zimbabwe is allowed to export the remains of 1,000 elephants a year, 500 of them as hunting trophies.
Last month CITES also authorised it to make a one-off sale of 3.7 tons of ivory from its national stockpile.
John Sellar, CITES’s enforcement officer, stressed that the sale would not have been allowed if the situation was “out of control”, and added that he considered the country’s wildlife management officials “very impressive”.
“We have never had any reason to think they have something to hide,” he said.
“It’s clearly a country that’s under a lot of pressure from a variety of directions. I’m sure they are up against it in places. Given the socio-economic problems there it would be astonishing if there wasn’t poaching taking place.
“The poaching of elephants is just as much motivated by a desire to acquire the meat as it is to acquire ivory.” He added that culling was an accepted part of elephant population management across Africa.
“It’s certainly true that Zimbabwe every year kills a large number of elephants as part of problem animal control but I wouldn’t have thought it was 1,800,” he said.
“If Zimbabwe has decided to engage in culling to control its stocks that’s a matter for Zimbabwe. They are completely entitled to do that.”
Officials from Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority could not be reached for comment.