Zimbabwe land grabs put Presidential Elephants in danger
Political and military elites are seizing protected areas in Zimbabwe, including land in the Kanondo area near Hwange National Park. The area is home to the Presidential Elephant herd, which are now no longer protected against illegal hunting.
Land grabs make it impossible for conservationists to further protect the elephants. Last month Australian conservationist Sharon Pincott, who founded and ran the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project since 2001, announced that she was stopping her work and withdrawing from the project. Pincott was fighting for intervention from the government, but her efforts had no results. In her post she writes that Zimbabwe is “Now a country where even a high-level Cabinet directive to remove the land claimants can simply be ignored; where there is no accountability, and where months of ongoing damaging delays don't seem to matter to anyone in Government”.
Pincott’s decision followed a worsening fight caused by the takeover of a piece of land in the Hwange National Park, which serves as the herd’s home range. The land has been claimed by a woman named Elisabeth Pasalk, who reportedly has connections with a local hunting safari operator. She has started building a safari lodge called Gwango Elephant Lodge on the land, officially a conservancy opening for tourism.
Pasalk claims that Gwango Elephant Lodge is being legally established in Hwange, on State land that was allocated to her mother by the Zimbabwean government a few years ago. She proved it by sending a letter signed by Hwange Rural District Council CEO Phindile Ncube. The letter states that Gwango Elephant Lodge is a registered company, but Pasalk was unable to provide copies of title deeds or a lease agreement for the land.
A 2013 directive by Zimbabwe's Cabinet declaring that offer letters for the land must be withdrawn has been ignored. The land, which is classified as State land, includes key Presidential Elephant waterholes: Kanondo pan and Mpofu pan.
Elisabeth Pasalk is the sister of a known Zimbabwean hunting safari operator named Rodger Madangure. Fears about the future safety of the ‘protected’ Zimbabwe Presidential elephant herd have been further heightened, after reports of gunfire and suspected hunting activities at one of the herd’s watering holes.
In the last century, African elephant population dramatically fell down from ten millions to nearly 500,000 elephants. Zimbabwe has one of Africa's biggest surviving elephant population and half of the country's estimated 80,000 elephants are thought to live in Hwange.
After 1989 international ban on ivory trade, elephants in the Kanondo area were declared protected by President Robert Mugabe in order to symbolize Zimbabwe's commitment to a responsible wildlife management. Since then, they have been known as “Presidential Elephants”. However, in 1997 Mugabe declared that Zimbabwe would have honored the ivory ban if allowed to sell ivory from elephants that had been culled or had died of natural causes.
The first land claims begun in 2000, when President Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms, leading to a serious collapse of the country's economy. From that moment on, land reform policies have allowed politically connected people to receive hunting permits and land leases in wildlife reservers areas, says non-profit research institution C4ADS.
Moreover, last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to block the importation of sport-hunted African elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe and Tanzania in 2014. The U.S. Wildlife department said that “Additional killing of elephants in these countries, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species”.
This ban follows a 2013 massacre in Hwange National Park. More than 300 elephants have been killed by poachers who poisoned waterholes using cyanide. It was the worst single massacre in southern Africa for 25 years. Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, suspected a cover-up and said that local politicians and business people were embroiled in the killings.
Elephants are being murdered for their ivory tusks. Wildlife experts estimate that the illegal international ivory trade is worth up to $10 billion a year. Demand for ivory is high in Asia, especially in China, and smuggling is a common practice.
Author: Michela Zamuner
Guest Conservation Reporter