Wildlife Trade Case Study: Zimbabwe

What do the Chinese, American trophy hunters, hunger, corruption and economic instability have in common? They are all causes of the decimation of Zimbabwe's wildlife heritage. Under the corrupt rule of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's economy has been in a free fall, resulting in skyrocketing unemployment rates and increased hunger. Combined with the forced takeover of farms, wildlife conservancies and game ranches, bushmeat hunting, poaching and trophy hunting are quickly eradicating the country's wildlife populations.

Many Zimbabweans have turned to bushmeat poaching to feed their hungry families, and the Mugabe government has initiated its own campaign to allow police and defense forces to alleviate hunger by killing wildlife. The government attributes the increase in hunger in part to drought, but according to Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodriguez, the record rainfalls in 2006 suggest the current hunger problem is occurring due to other causes. To make matters worse, in 2005, the government instructed national park rangers to shoot 10 elephants for a barbecue in honor of the country's 25 years of independence and started allowing national park officials to kill wildlife as part of their rations. It now permits wildlife to be killed to feed its military forces.

Bushmeat and commercial poachers operate throughout the country with virtually no restriction. An audit by Zimbabwean officials revealed that poaching was rampant partly because of a lack of rangers to patrol and enforce wildlife laws. In addition, because of Mugabe's land seizure program, only 14 game ranches and 84 wildlife conservancies still exist. Poachers emptied a ranch in Matabeleland of its 6,000 animals, including many of its 50 endangered black rhinos. Rangers who want to enforce Zimbabwe's wildlife laws are not able to engage in anti-poaching patrols due to a lack of fuel. In July, despite these difficulties, rangers were able to arrest 285 fish and wildlife poachers—though it is unclear if the arrests, given the severity of the problem and the lack of sufficient criminal penalties, will significantly reduce poaching in the country.

Zimbabwe's national parks are also in disrepair, with no funds to operate pumps to provide groundwater to wildlife, which has forced elephants and other animals to find habitat and flee poachers by crossing into Zambia. But most are not so fortunate. As a result of a controversial decision by CITES member countries in 1997, Zimbabwe was authorized to sell ivory from its ivory stockpiles. Sadly, this has led to an increase in elephant poaching in Zimbabwe and neighboring countries to fulfill China's demand for ivory. Indeed, during the first seven months of 2006, Chinese dealers purchased 30 tons of ivory tusks, representing 2,250 elephants from Zimbabwe's Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. This compelled the government to "temporarily prohibit ivory sales or trading within the country.

While poachers continue to decimate Zimbabwe's wildlife, many of Mugabe's followers ignore national and international wildlife laws by allowing sport hunters to operate virtually without restriction on game ranches and other lands throughout the country.

Many of these government insiders ignore arbitrary hunting quotas, allow hunters to kill animals (including endangered species) inside protected wildlife areas, hunt using fake permits, and fail to keep track of wounded wildlife. These government insiders-turned-hunt ranch operators reportedly often reap significant profits from such operations—most of which ends up in private bank accounts, while a pittance goes to the local population.

Despite a US government declaration of Zimbabwe as "an outpost of tyranny" and its imposition of economic sanctions against at least 128 of Mugabe's relatives and cronies, Americans make up 80 to 90 percent of the hunters who visit the country. Though clearly concerned about the corruption withinZimbabwe, the US government has ignored the significant sums of money being spent by American trophy hunters. In doing so, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is contributing to the destruction of Zimbabwe's wildlife heritage.