CITES Secretary General Expected in Zimbabwe


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Aug 21, 2009
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CITES Secretary General Expected in Zimbabwe

CITES Secretary General Willem Wijnstekers is expected in Zimbabwe in January for talks with President Robert Mugabe over rampant poaching decimating wildlife in the southern African country and said to involve top politicians and army officials. A senior official at the government’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management said that the CITES official was also expected to meet Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, police chief Augustine Chihuri and Attorney General Johannes Tomana. Wijnstekers will discuss with Mnangagwa the alleged involvement of senior military officers in poaching while he seeks to establish from Chihuri and Tomana security measures put in place to curb illegal killing of protected wildlife and measures taken against those caught poaching including the levels of sentencing.

Poaching has been rife in Zimbabwe since landless black villagers began invading – with tacit approval from the government – white-owned farms and game conservancies over the past nine years. Some of the country’s biggest state-owned nature and game conservancies including Gonarezhou national park that forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier straddling across Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa have large parts occupied by villagers. In many cases farm invaders poach animals for meat and cut down trees for sale as firewood mostly to people living in urban areas.

But there has also been an upsurge in the poaching of endangered species such as the rhino targeted for its horn that is exported mainly to China and Vietnam where it is in huge demand. International syndicates working with local gangs are said to be behind rhino poaching. A joint-report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, about two weeks ago estimated that Zimbabwe’s rhino population had declined by an alarming 14.7 percent since 2007 due to poaching.

There have also been reports of illegal and uncontrolled trophy hunting on former white-owned conservancies now controlled by powerful government officials and members of Mugabe’s ZANU PF party politicians. The government however denies politicians are illegally hunting game and insists it still has poaching under control.

Strategic Economic Significance of Current High Levels of Poaching In Zimbabwe
Source: Information presented at stakeholder conference on rhino conservation convened in Harare on 19 October 2009 by IUCN Species Survival Commission and Lowveld Rhino Trust.

Zimbabwe is currently showing a severe lack of control over poaching of rhinos and elephants, along with many less prominent wildlife species that are being harvested for meat. Populations of black and white rhinos have been pushed into serious decline within Zimbabwe over the past three years. The national total now stands at approximately 430 black rhinos (compared to 550 at the end of 2007) and 300 white rhinos (compared to 340 at the end of 2006). Taking into account that there were births during this period to add to the initial populations, the actual loss of rhinos (both species) since the end of 2006 stands at well over 200 animals. This loss makes up half the total loss of rhinos to poaching over the entire African continent, within the period 2006-2009. Other range states such as South Africa still have sufficiently large rhino populations that their poaching losses over the past three years equate to well under 5% of their total populations and are sustainable (at present). In contrast to all other current rhino range states, Zimbabwe's poaching losses over the past three years equate to more than 25% of its population and are therefore unsustainable and severely threaten the survival of the species.

For elephants, the widespread poaching in northern Zimbabwe (Sebungwe and Zambezi regions) is less well monitored. The last major elephant survey in Zimbabwe was done several years ago. Analysis of data from this survey showed that poaching had brought the growth of elephant populations in Sebungwe to a halt by 2006. Compared to surveys conducted prior to 1990, the survey in 2006 showed that the number of elephant carcasses in the Sebungwe region had increased more than sixteen-fold. Since 2006, escalating reports of elephant poaching show that the situation is still worsening. At a national level Zimbabwe has an elephant population that is orders of magnitude greater than its tiny rhino population, and habitat destruction by elephants has become a controversial issue amongst conservationists, some of whom recommend culling while others oppose it. Nonetheless, the fact that the elephants in parts of the Sebungwe and Zambezi regions have now come under the management of poachers, for illegal gain, shows a loss of state control of this key wildlife resource.

The implications for the loss of control of poaching start with the fact that Zimbabwe cannot be said to be effectively implementing a policy of sustainable use of wildlife, as it has so proudly done for decades in the face of criticism from animal rightists, and from preservationist countries such as Kenya, that oppose safari hunting, trade in wildlife products and other consumptive uses of wildlife. If Zimbabwe is seen to be failing in this regard, it will come under criticism from both its foes (who oppose its wildlife management philosophy) and from its friends who share this philosophy but have to protect it by making it clear that it is not the sustainable use approach that is failing - it is just that Zimbabwe is no longer implementing this philosophy effectively. Negative publicity on the wildlife crisis will fuel negative media reports, in turn impacting upon the willingness of tourists to visit Zimbabwe's wildlife attractions.

As a forthcoming focus on Zimbabwe's conservation track-record, the next CITES Conference of Parties (CoP15) will be held in March 2010 in Qatar. During this conference, Zimbabwe's record in rhino conservation since the last CITES conference will come under specific review as a consequence of CITES Decision 14.90 which requires the CITES Secretariat to examine implementation of Resolution Conf. 9.14 (Rev. CoP14) where illegal poaching of rhinos appears to have increased and to pose a significant threat to populations, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal and Zimbabwe; and to report to CITES Standing Committee SC57, SC58 and CITES Conference CoP15.

Zimbabwe was subject to an adverse report at the last CITES Standing Committee meeting, mainly because of the very limited number of prosecutions that have been achieved for rhino poachers, which indicates weak law enforcement. This is not a situation that can be solved by simple military means. It requires basic law-enforcement through determined investigations and well prepared prosecutions, with particular attention paid to neutralizing the middlemen and traders and not simply the poachers. Therefore, it is the lack of attention to the higher levels of the poaching syndicates that is causing international concern and which is resulting in speculative media reports that senior politicians are linked to Chinese and other Asian outlets for rhino horn.

This speculation is enhanced by lax controls on the trading of worked ivory in Zimbabwe. Tusks from Zimbabwe have been confiscated in China with no more than marker pen scrawls on them, but have been described as "worked ivory".

Other Southern African countries are not trading in worked ivory except for a limited trade in traditional ivory artifacts that is permitted in Namibia. Registered Zimbabwean ivory dealers who have been found guilty of abusing their privileges in one way or another have not been heavily penalized (several such cases are likely to be referred to by the CITES Secretariat). Ongoing international criticism before and during the next CITES conference may initiate action by the CITES Secretariat to remove CITES approval for Zimbabwe's internal trade in worked ivory, on the basis that this trade is insufficiently regulated and controlled.

All rhino horn trade is totally illegal, in both domestic and international markets, so the next CITES conference is unlikely to identify specific new measures by which the CITES process can reduce illegal horn trading in Zimbabwe. However, if an adverse report is tabled at the CITES conference in terms on the rhino-related Decision 14.90, coupled with an adverse report on elephant poaching and weak internal regulation of ivory trade, this will have very adverse impacts on Zimbabwe's international conservation image.

If they feel that Zimbabwe is no longer demonstrating sustainable management of its key wildlife resources, some influential CITES members may then modify their own policies relating to importation of wildlife products (including safari trophies) from Zimbabwe. This foreseeable economic impact, along with the tarnished image that Zimbabwe will gain in the ecotourism business, has definite potential of significantly undermining wildlife-based land-uses in Zimbabwe to the detriment of the Parks Estate, the community-based wildlife projects, and commercial wildlife operations.

Thus the lack of control over poaching of elephants and rhinos is of direct and major economic significance to Zimbabwe's economic recovery.

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