Elephants Under Seige
Harare, Zimbabwe – Conservationists are concerned at reports in Zimbabwe’s media that the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ), whose membership comprises almost exclusively of hunting operators, is set to hand over information requested by the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) in another effort to over-turn a ban on importation of sport hunted elephant trophies.
In April the USFWS announced the suspention of all imports of sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe for the calender year 2014. USFWS representative, Gavin Shire, cited that “The U.S. is required to certify each year that the elephant hunt in each country is not detrimental to that population. This entails each country submitting specific information on the elephant population, its management of that population and any poaching that may be occurring. This year, Zimbabwe failed to provide the required information and so we had no choice but to suspend the importation of elephant trophies from that country.”
Furthermore, in a press statement announcing the ban the USFWS showed concern that available data out of Zimbabwe showed “a significant decline in the elephant population” to the point that Zimbabwe’s elephants were “under siege”. The announcement concluded that sport-hunting of elephants in Zimbabwe “is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species.” Recent issues such as the much publicised poisoning of over 300 elephants last year, the misuse of problem animal permits and hunting licenses as well the saga of the Presidential elephants in the private conservancies bordering the Hwange National Park, have all been taken into account by the US department in effecting the ban.
Americans make up the majority of trophy hunters in Zimbabwe, exporting an average of 160 trophies every year. But there has been a long lack of transparency surrounding the allocation of land and hunting licenses with concessions awarded to those well connected politically most of who are without any prior experience in wildlife management.
As a result, Zimbabwe’s top wildlife officials and politicians have scrambled to rescind the ban on this lucrative trade. In May, Zimbabwe despatched a delegation to Washington in an unsuccessful effort to overturn the decision. The delegation was led by SOAZ’s chairman Emannuel Fundira who met various government officials, including the Secretary of State John Kerry. Fundira’s mission barely got off the ground not only because they still failed to provide the information required but outbursts from government ministers back home accusing the USFWS of clandestinely trying to topple the ruliing party and hunting operators like Ron Thompson who likened the department to a militant Islamic state hell bent on destroying Christendom and based his theory that hunting ought to be intensified as there were, if anything, far too many elephants in Zimbabwe.
The SOAZ delegation’s main counter-argument were the 800 000 Zimbabweans under the CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) project whose livelihood, they claimed, was directly affected by the ban. Such figures are most likely exaggerated and so far have not been proven idependently of the offical records.
The theory behind CAMPFIRE is that communities will invest in environmental conservation if they can exploit these resources on a sustainable basis for their own benefit. The biggest source of income is money accrued from tropy-hunting. The programme is based on creating appropriate institutions under which resources can be legitimately managed and exploited by the resident communities. Profits from the enterprise may be used for communal benefits or distributed to individual households at the discretion of the community.
However, a report released by C4ADS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide and commissioned by animal advocacy group, Born Free USA, has revealed that “across Zimbabwe, economic operations on wildlife range areas are being seized by Zimbabwe’s political-military elites”. In this latest chapter of land seizures the small clique of Zimbabwe’s ruling party politicians and associates who own nearly 40% of the 14 million hectares of land seized from commercial farms are now turning to the more profitable safari and wildlife conservancies. In other words, the CAMPFIRE project appears to be used as a thin veil to cover the actions of land-hungry members of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite, and evidence suggests that the communities in question are far from being affected by the ban since they were hardly benefitting anyway. The result is that the CAMPFIRE communities are resorting to poaching in an effort to either sustain their livelihoods or, worse, gravitate toward the illegal wildlife trade. This is something else the Born Free report highlights, and another reason for the USFWS ban.
Unsurprisingly, then, the delegation was told by US officials that proper aerial surveys of elephant populations and a detailed elephant management plan had to be produced as well as information on precisely how the CAMPFIRE communities are affected before the US would begin to consider lifting the ban.
It now appears, according to SOAZ, that the information has been compiled and will be sent to the US for review. “Should Zimbabwe provide the necessary information,” says Gavin Shire, “the importation could be reinstated and potentially backdated to include all of 2014.”
Should the ban not be overturned, the country, according to Fundira, will look elsewhere. Fundira has recently stated that SOAZ will endeavour to “capture alternative markets, particularly in Eastern Europe” and added that they would complement these efforts by attending the various tourism showcases in countries such as Russia, Hungary and Bulgaria. This policy falls in line with Born Free’s findings that Eastern Europe and the Far East, particularly China, which is currently the largest investor in Zimbabwe’s natural resources, are already replacing the American hunters. Born Free’s concern is not the sport-hunting per se but that it becomes a ‘legitimate’ means to export ‘trophies’ to those countries notorious for their craving of ivory. Already in contravention of the CITES ban, Zimbabwe blatantly allows the sale of worked ivory to China of 10kgs per person. The USFWS ban, therefore, may not necessarily provide a reprieve for Zimbabwe’s elephants as the country will, and is, simply swapping one evil for another.