Zimbabwe blames disgruntled rangers and villagers for elephant poisonings

Zimbabwe’s environment minister has blamed the poisoning of at least 71 elephants in recent months on disgruntled game rangers and local communities who do not benefit from wildlife revenues.

“It was noted that a number of issues such as low staff morale, lack of community benefits and hunting quota anomalies are fuelling poaching in Zimbabwe,” Oppah Muchinguri told a meeting of conservationists, government and security officials on Thursday.

“We have all heard the devastating news of the cyanide poisoning that has claimed the lives of 71 elephants at Hwange national park in recent weeks,” she said.

“We need to motivate our rangers so that they do not engage in poaching activities,” Muchinguri said, calling for improvements in their working conditions.

Last week, police arrested three journalists at a weekly newspaper over a story implicating park rangers, police chiefs and an Asian businessman in the poisoning of the elephants.

Muchinguri also called for increased efforts to fight poaching by ensuring that villagers who live near game reserves benefit from revenue generated by wildlife tourism.

Tourism contributes about $1bn in revenue every year according to officials, with visitors mainly attracted by the country’s wildlife.

“The poaching ... if not addressed decisively will have significant economic impacts,” she said.

Muchinguri said the government had bought drones to patrol game reserves while security agencies had been deployed to beef up patrols in and around parks.

Zimbabwe has an elephant population of about 80,000 and an ivory stockpile of 78,000kg worth $12m, she said.

Muchinguri indicated that Zimbabwe would like to be able to sell the stockpiled ivory when an international moratorium on the ivory trade expires in 2017.

“Zimbabwe ... needs to dispose of its growing ivory stockpile to build strong institutions to curb wildlife poaching, to adequately enforce the rule of law and to put in place poverty eradication mechanisms and enforce environmental protection among local communities,” she said.

Poaching is common in Zimbabwe’s game parks with elephants and rhino as the main targets for their tusks and horns, which are smuggled to eastern Asian countries.

Last year, more than 300 elephants died after suspected poachers placed cyanide near their watering holes.

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