Suspicion dogs Zim rangers
HARARE — The ranger waiting to help us to find the rhinos in Zimbabwe’s Kyle Recreational Park was in camouflage.
Rifle alongside her, she stood on the open truck, scanning the bleached long grasses near the edge of Lake Mutirikwi for the tell-tale grey shadows that betray the grazing spots of some of Africa’s most endangered animals.
Rangers in this relatively small park in southern Zimbabwe are fiercely protective of the animals here, mounting a 24-hour guard.
That often means camping out next to them.
“But the tents we bought for the rangers were not good quality,” another ranger explained on a visit earlier this year. “They didn’t last.”
Allegations that disgruntled low-ranking members of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) may be behind the poisonings with cyanide of 62 elephants in Hwange and Kariba are causing consternation.
One of the biggest pleasures in holidaying in Zimbabwe’s national parks is meeting and talking to rangers from Zimparks. Working in often difficult conditions for about the same pay as a teacher in public service (around $500 US per month), they are extremely loyal to the game they protect.
Last week, Zimparks manager Tawanda Gotosa stressed the “sacrifice and dedication to duty” of Zimbabwe’s rangers, while confirming that two former contract workers were under investigation for one case of poisoning.
“We are certainly not the best neither are we the worst-paid conservation organisation,” Gotosa told the Southern Eye newspaper.
“We always act swiftly to deal with malcontents,” he added.
The Friends of Hwange, an independently-run conservation support group also defended state rangers, stressing in a statement last Friday that none of the staff at Sinamatella — the site of two poisoning incidents in Hwange in recent weeks — had been implicated.
“In both cases, poachers were disturbed by parks patrols and fled,” the group said, adding that the poachers were tracked “towards the boundary of the park.” This would suggest that the poachers in those incidents were not rangers, since they are accommodated within Hwange.
Sadly this is not the first mass poisoning incident in Hwange: two years ago, in 2013, a spate of devastating poisonings left around 200 (some reports say 300) elephants dead.
There were arrests in the wake of those poisonings — and they were not of rangers. Almost all of them were of villagers living around Hwange. They were the ones who laid the cyanide on the salt-licks near the watering holes: the ones on the lowest link of what was almost certainly then, like now, a carefully-crafted chain of command stretching down from unnamed — and no doubt still free — “bigwigs”, as the local press calls them.
Hwange villagers may have been paid just 100 US per tusk they collected but that represents a significant windfall. Communities living around national parks are often low-income.
Suspicions over the possible involvement of parks employees were fuelled by the arrest in the first week of October of three parks employees — two rangers and an ecologist — at Harare International Airport, where they were apparently trying to smuggle tusks out. The official Herald newspaper reported that the tusks had been stolen from a strong room at the authority’s Hwange headquarters at Main Camp.
Zimbabwe’s rangers haven’t al-
ways enjoyed a good reputation, particularly during the 2000-8 crisis. That was partly to do with the controversial practice of “ration-hunting”, when employees were ordered to shoot game for food for state occasions or for the workforce. One British woman speaks of her horror when she visited Kyle Recreational Park in 2007 to see a parks truck loaded with freshly shot game. She and her family have never been back.
There are occasionally whispered poaching allegations against one or more senior parks employees — but mostly, rangers enjoy a good press.
Rory Young, who has trained state rangers in anti-poaching skills in central, southern, eastern and western Africa said in a telephone interview: “The Zim parks officers are among the best I have worked with.
“They are resourceful and skilled and their successes are... all the more impressive considering the shocking lack of financial and other resources they have to work with,” Young added.