"Hungry ZANU PF Militias Poach Wildlife To Survive"

An environmental catastrophe is looming in most wildlife protected areas in Matabeleland North due to an upsurge in poaching activities by ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front] militias camped at bases throughout the province, it has been learnt.

This has prompted warnings by a prominent conservationist that cases of poaching, which skyrocketed following the chaotic land reform programme, will result in most wildlife species becoming extinct if left unchecked.

A number of Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (NPWMA) officials speaking on condition of anonymity raised alarm last week saying the illegal hunting of game had gone out of hand.

They said elephants and buffaloes at conservancies, national parks and Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources Programme (CAMPFIRE) areas were the most affected.

"Each ward has a base of not less than 10 people who have been camped there since sometime in April and these people have been feeding on game meat," said a senior ZNPWMA official. "In areas like Lupane, at least an elephant and a buffalo are killed every week and here we are not talking about the small game."

War veterans and ZANU PF youths set up bases soon after President Robert Mugabe lost the first round of the presidential election to Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The ruling party militias have been accused of extorting food from hungry villagers. In some areas young girls were reportedly recruited to cook food extorted from companies at the bases.

There are reports that the bases have not been dismantled even after President Mugabe won the 27 June one-man presidential election run-off as Tsvangirai pulled out citing mounting violence against his supporters.

"There is a serious danger of over-hunting, especially in the Gwayi Conservancy, where new farmers are being forced to regularly send game meat to the bases," said another source.

"Although the hunting season is on, the quantities of meat being demanded by these people are just too much to be sustained by the low number of hunting quotas that have been issued this season."

Some new farmers in the Gwayi Conservancy complained that they were no longer able to supply their workers game meat, which they usually get from trophy hunters during the hunting season.

"If you fail to comply with their demands you become an enemy of the ruling party," complained a farmer who requested anonymity. "This is forcing some of our colleagues to over-hunt and it is not good for the environment, something needs to be done to stop this."

Johnny Rodrigues, a prominent environmentalist and chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce said recent research showed that the problem was country-wide, with elephants being the most hunted.

"If it goes on like this within a year Zimbabwe will run out of wildlife," he said. "Poaching levels have actually doubled in the last few months and we have been to the ground to see for ourselves the extent of these problems."

NPWMA spokesman, Edward Mbewe, could not be reached for comment on the latest developments.

Originally published by The Standard website, Harare, in English 5 Jul 08.