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Police recover 31 tusks as villagers arrested searching for ivory buyers

HWANGE – Police said six villagers were arrested on Wednesday and Thursday while searching for elephant tusk buyers in the mining town of Hwange, in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North province.

On Sunday, 57-year-old Collin Tapfumaneyi Chizengeni was more audacious: arrested while trying to sell 21 pieces of ivory from his house in Gutu.

On Thursday, Three Harare men were arrested with 37kgs of elephant tusks. Bhekithemba Mathe (30), Thando Mpala (26) and Talent Ganya (30) were arrested in possession of ivory while looking for buyers, police said.

On April 19, a Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authorities (ZimParks) ranger at Sinamatela Camp in Hwange National Park and a Chikurubi Prison officer were arrested, caught selling elephant tusks at a fuel station.

They were asking for US$50 a kg, police said, after detectives from CID Minerals, Fauna and Flora Unit Harare apprehended Simibio Kakomo and Shepherd Musiniwa.

As for the six suspects arrested in Hwange, the alleged wildlife offenders “were found in possession of 10 elephant tusks, one fresh elephant tail, illegal firearms and ammunition,” said police spokesperson Paul Nyathi.

The price currently paid for raw ivory in Asia, according to an investigation by the Wildlife Justice Commission, is between US$597/kg and US$689/kg.

It was not clear how much the suspects were charging for the ivory or how they had come to be in possession of the ivory. Authorities did not reveal discovery of any elephant carcasses.

“Detectives acted on the received information and pounced on the suspects who were searching for elephant tusk buyers in the Kamativi area leading to the arrest of the gang,” Nyathi said of four of the six arrested.

“The suspects were searched and four elephant tusks, with an estimated weight of 13 kgs, a fresh elephant tail, an AK47, with a magazine of 26 rounds and AK47 loose rounds, a 375 rifle loaded with nine rounds, five 375 rifle loose rounds, four axes, and five jungle knives were recovered.”

ZimParks regional manager for north-west Matabeleland, Samson Chibaya said total recoveries after all six suspects had been arrested, amounted to, “10 elephant tusks, one by AK 47 riffle, one by 375 riffle, two by 303 dis assembled rifles, 44 by AK 47 ammo and 14 by 375 ammo.”

Wildlife crime fight needs all hands on deck but some feel less equal than others

While authorities’ battle growing criminal sophistication behind wildlife crime syndicates, local officials say the emergence of brazen illegal ivory sells also requires attention.

Centre for Natural Resources Governance director Farai Maguwu said the amount of ivory being recovered is a worrying trend and may indicate the presence of a local market.

At the same time observers say Zimbabwe’s declining economy has also created an environment conducive for wildlife crime in communities.

Villagers in Hwange who spoke to Zim Morning Post on how they can better help authorities fight wildlife crime, said exclusivity by state actors was pushing some villagers to work in common purpose with wildlife offenders.

“Despite living with elephants and wildlife, we are yet to enjoy the returns, yet our maize fields are decimated by wildlife every season,” said a Dete villager who identified herself as Sarah Mutale.

“We now have cases of villagers coming in common purpose with poachers because it was a win-win situation in that problem animals are being eliminated and meat is being provided. The alternative is waiting on government and the rural district councils for funds that never trickle down to us.”

A bone-of-contention from a community member who preferred anonymity, fearing victimisation, lamented that communities have no control over funds from wildlife which are administered by RDCs and the Safari Operators.

“We do not know what is contained in the agreements signed on behalf of the community by the RDC,” said a Hwange villager.

Rural District Councils (RDCs) receive funds annually from revenue generated from wildlife, mainly from safari hunting.

But communities often accuse RDCs of diverting funds to non-conservation activities.

However, Chief Dingane Nelukoba whose area of jurisdiction covers much of Hwange, batted in the corner of authorities.

He insisted rural district councils are implementing various positive conservation strides and “anyone pointing fingers at government or the rural district council” for not doing enough “is attempting to find a scapegoat for their illegal crimes.”

Those higher up, however, admit there are challenges.

Zimbabwe’s minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu said government was making continued efforts to address the challenge of negative consequences of human and wildlife interaction, which was driving on a retaliatory path through poaching.

“To deal with these emerging challenges Zimbabwe through the ZimParks submitted a funding proposal to cater for law enforcement and community livelihoods for 400 000 euro and 600 000 euro respectively,” Ndlovu said in a speech read on his behalf last week after the German government provided one million euro for the support of wildlife law enforcements and community livelihoods.

“The Zimbabwe proposal was therefore accepted with the project tenure of the Covid-19 emergency grant stretching from April 2020 to April 2022,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s Government is currently reviewing the 1992 Wildlife Policy as compensation and lack of inclusivity remains a contentious issue.