Zimbabwe battling to keep rhino poaching in check
Behind a veil of mopani leaves, a man, armed with a hunting rifle and scope, stalks a black rhino and her calf.
The man’s name is Chelepele Phiri and his movements are slow and deliberate. But the crosshairs on Phiri’s rifle won’t settle on the rhino; the bullets in his weapon’s magazine are meant for any poacher who tries his luck.
It’s a 24-hour job for Phiri and his partner Killiot Kanama, and a growing trend in Zimbabwe. Smaller game reserves are employing game guards to shadow their rhinos.
Like their neighbour to the south, Zimbabwe is losing rhinos to poaching syndicates.
“We have seen a noticeable escalation in rhino poaching last year and this year. It seems to be getting worse,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
He said at least 24 rhinos had been killed in Zimbabwe this year.
The mother rhino that Phiri and Kanama follow is called Busta. She is one of six black rhinos in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, about 13km from the town of Victoria Falls.
On the night of July 24 last year, Busta, then pregnant with her calf, was the apparent target of a gang of poachers.
However, the poachers’ attack was thwarted when they ran into a herd of angry elephants.
On the morning of July 25, an International Anti Poaching Foundation (IAPF) patrol happened across spoor that led to a tree.
Up the tree they found Nkululeko Sibanda, together with his soiled underpants.
The story he told rangers was that he was taking a short-cut into the reserve when he was chased by a herd of elephants. It then got worse when he ran into a pride of lions. He took refuge up the tree.
Sibanda’s story about the elephants checked out; rangers backtracked on his spoor and found the spot where he was chased. But what Sibanda had failed to mention to rangers were the other footprints they found alongside his.
“With those other four sets of prints we realised that something was up, that he was a part of a group of five,” said IAPF founder Damien Mander.
Using GPS to record exact co-ordinates and taking careful photographs of the imprints left by the shoes of each of the suspects, Mander and the other rangers began building a case.
The following night, suspecting that the men might return under the light of a full moon, the IAPF set up patrols and observation points.
The alleged poachers didn’t return, and they had to move to plan B.
Sibanda gave up the names of his apparent accomplices, and police raided a residential address in Victoria Falls. Mander and other rangers joined the raid on the house.
They arrested four men and seized a machete and an AK-47 with 50 rounds of ammunition.
“Their plan would have been to spray the rhinos with bullets,” said Mander.
More worrying was that they discovered that the man who allegedly led the attack, Mike Tichaona Mahanzu, was once a Support Unit member of the Zimbabwean police.
Ian du Preez, manager of the Victoria Falls Private Reserve, believes Mahanzu would have known where they would have been able to locate Busta, as he had worked on the reserve as part of the anti-poaching unit.
The men’s shoes were collected at the house, and Mander said they matched the photographs of the prints they had taken.
Combined, the men face a hundred years in prison. Their court case continues.
Rodrigues said that while most Zimbabwean poachers used the likes of AK-47s to gun down rhinos, recently there had been cases of tranquilliser darts being used.
“I’ve had reports of horn being smuggled out through Harare airport. Apparently the customs officials, police, etc are all taking bribes to let it go through,” he said.
The IAPF’s training facility happens to be in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve. It is here that rangers are trained in various aspects of bush craft, unarmed combat, evidence collection and surveillance.
Mander is an ex-Australian special forces operative.
An interesting aspect of the IAPF’s training is that they use convicted poachers and train them to become rangers – because of their inside knowledge of the illegal trade.
But close to the training facility, a farming community has sprung up recently. With the influx of people has come concern that there will be increased poaching in the area.
“What you have is 60 000 unemployed people now in the Vic Falls area, and that is worrying,” said Mander.