ON October 1 last year, rangers in Hwange National Park discovered the rotting carcasses of 26 elephants killed in a fresh round of cyanide poisoning, a week after 14 other jumbos had been found dead in the giant wildlife estate.
The discoveries created a sombre mood within the wildlife and tourism sectors and dominated global headlines, coming soon after the highly publicised slaughter of Cecil the lion, which triggered waves of demonstrations in the United States against the medical doctor who killed the animal.
A month later, Jumbo killings by a rising army of increasingly sophisticated and highly equipped poaching syndicates brought the toll to over 400 elephants killed in the frenzy of mindless slaughters.
Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Walter Mzembi described continuing killings in Hwange as “wildlife terrorism”.
Over 300 elephants were poisoned in the 14 000 square kilometre wildlife conservancy in August 2013, ironically, just as Zimbabwe was hosting the United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly in the resort town of Victoria Falls.
These numbers are frightening.
If new data released in November by the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is taken into consideration, the full picture of the plunder becomes scary.
AWF said the country lost 7 000 mammals in the Zambezi Valley alone between 1994 and 2015, which painted a grim picture of the state of poaching across the country.
Wildlife belts stretch from the Gonarezhou National Park in the south eastern parts of the country to rich game sanctuaries such as the Save Valley Conservancy in Masvingo province.
“We have been losing a lot of elephants in the past 20 years,” said Alistair Pole of the AWF, who spoke in November at a stakeholder conference convened to explore measures to reduce wildlife poaching.
“A census in the Zambezi Valley showed there were 19 000 elephants in 2001. There are now 12 000 elephants, that is a loss of 7 000. The real loss is about 20 000 to 24 000 elephants,” Pole said before posing a question; “Where are the elephants going?”
Using Pole’s statistics, the country could have lost as much as US$2,8 billion through elephant killings since 1994.
This figure is based on only the number of elephants that have been recorded as killed.
Hundreds or even thousands more disappear without trace or records in the parks that have clearly become too big to police for a country battling an economic crisis to police.
An elephant cost US$120 000 in sport hunting.
“Zimbabwe’s wildlife sector at the moment is not very healthy,” said Pole.
“It is a bit sick. We have to diagnose the core problem and create a healthy wildlife sector,” he said, urging authorities to move away from the centralised wildlife management model.
But while conservationists and animal lovers were grieving over the relentless slaughter of the giant beasts, focus shifted to the severe economic impact of poaching in Zimbabwe.
The country estimates that the tourism industry will be contributing 5,1 percent to its US$14 billion gross domestic product (GDP) this year.
In Zimbabwe, tourism, alongside the manufacturing sector, agriculture and mining have been recognised in successive economic blueprints as key pillars.
Mzembi has rolled out an ambitious plan for the industry to generate US$5 billion by 2020, from about US$1 billion this year.
He acknowledges that it will be difficult, although still possible, to achieve this target if the frenzy of wildlife poaching continues.
Mzembi says 70 percent of the attractions that Zimbabwe markets to the world are wildlife based.
The more the decimation continues, the gloomier the outlook.
Yet first, it was the black rhino to face the dreaded arms of the poachers.
Rhinos are now almost extinct, and those tourists that were trooping to view them could be eyeing other African destinations.
Now it is the scourge of elephants poisoning which could undermine the attractiveness of Zimbabwe as a tourism hub.
The poachers sell the ivory in the Far East where there is huge demand.
A range of other animals, such as buffaloes, giraffes, leopards, birds and snakes have continued to be slaughtered illegally.
The minister sees this as significantly diminishing the Zimbabwean wildlife product.
“The tourism brand can be easily undermined by the scourge of wildlife poaching,” says Mzembi.
“Illegal trade in wildlife is presenting the third largest contraband business after trade in illegal drugs and weapons. We need to treat poaching as a security threat. It is wildlife terrorism. That is what it is,” he says, acknowledging that “it has become difficult to control illegal exploitation of wildlife”.
Poachers have become sophisticated.
Illegal hunters are using hytec aids like Global Positioning Systems and advanced slaughter machines, some of which the Park and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe is yet to acquire for its rangers.
The magnitude of the destruction goes beyond the targeted animals.
In the case of cyanide poisoning, the killing of elephants has become an existential threat to biodiversity, as it wipes out all genetic species in the ecosystem that come into contact with the contaminated carcass, water or soil.
Vultures have been wiped out on the scenes of elephant carcasses.
In turn, every creature that feeds on the dead vultures has been killed.
The cycle is vicious, and can easily put human life into danger.
What this demands is that after every round of killings, the environment would urgently require restoration and restocking of flora and fauna.
Otherwise the country could be confronted by another dinosaur curse.
“We do not want to get there. But ultimately, tourism is the major casualty,” says Mzembi, who laments the lack of resources to equip the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe.
Weak institutions, lack of integrated and collaborative conservation management and natural resource governance models, as well as the rise in global markets motivating demand for ivory and rhino horns, are among the factors driving poaching.
The effects of poaching on elephant populations in Zimbabwe are already becoming visible.
Many elephants are fleeing poachers in Zimbabwe, enduring a blistering long journey to Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
In Chobe, the impressive herds have given tourists an unsurpassed opportunity to view jumbos through a buffet of angles — on the banks, on the land, in water and up close.
Tourism officials in Kasane, Botswana, acknowledge that the booming elephant herds in the region have been boosted by constant arrivals from Zimbabwe.
Some of them never return once they cross the border into Botswana.
“The elephants are coming from Zimbabwe fleeing poaching,” says Mokganedi Ntana, tourism development manager for Botswana Tourism in Kasane.
“The poachers’ methods are cruel. Here we are strict, we are trying to control mass tourism because you put pressure on the ecosystem if you have too many lodges,” he said.
In 1994, Botswana had 70 000 elephants, but this number had increased to 212 000 in 2013.
During dry seasons, Zimbabwe’s national parks also run out of grazing pastures and water, triggering the migration of animals into Chobe.
“We are making more day trips into Chobe than before,” said a tour guide at Kazungula Border Post, the gateway into north eastern Botswana.
“Elephants and other animals are migrating into Chobe from Zambezi National Park because Botswana has put in place strong anti-poaching measures backed by the army. There are also better grazing pastures during the dry season.”
Tour operators have been busy transferring over 150 tourists into Chobe every day from Victoria Falls, specifically to view wild animals.
The tourists combine day cruises and game drives with more extensive trips inside Botswana, which include visiting the world renowned Okavango Delta, where they have better chances of seeing leopards, lions, elands, grant’s gazelles, roan antelopes, lesser kudu, hartebeest, giraffes, crocodiles, hippos, and beisa oryx, thought to be extinct in this region.
The drive from Victoria Falls takes about 90 minutes.
“In Chobe you are 90 percent guaranteed that you will see animals,” says Charles Chakanya, marketing director at Zambezi Explorer, the largest cruise vessel in Victoria Falls.
This is the crisis that has been haunting Mzembi, the Tourism Minister.
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