Zimbabwean police are investigating former ruler Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace, accused of smuggling ivory worth millions to underground foreign markets. File picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Harare - Zimbabweans have learned of allegations that their former first lady Grace Mugabe illegally transported and sold poached elephant tusks to Malaysia and China. 

Australian photographer Adrian Steirn, who lives in Cape Town, went undercover for several months in Zimbabwe - while making a wildlife documentary - and encountered poachers, ivory buyers and carvers, and interviewed them, said he was amazed when he heard the name Grace Mugabe in connection with allegations of poaching. 

Not only about poached elephants, but he heard she was allegedly connected to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, responsible for all Zimbabwe’s national parks, and a huge warehouse to store confiscated rhino horn, elephant tusks and other dead animal products which cannot be sold or traded because of international treaties to which Zimbabwe is a signatory. 

Steirn said he uncovered the poaching and smuggling syndicate when he began looking into the illegal ivory trade in December.

Undercover footage filmed by Steirn and seen by Independent Media, shows several sources, including suspected poachers and intelligence, wildlife and aviation officials describing how Grace Mugabe smuggled ivory poached in national parks or looted from the government warehouse out of the country by exploiting her exemption from airport security secreening as first lady. 

“Ivory was being sourced either from the national parks’ vault, being thieved or pilfered, or from live elephants being killed by poaching syndicates. The syndicate would then sell to Grace Mugabe’s clientele.” 

“She would then be able to pack that and send it out through the airport. Anything through that airport, that was the property of the first lady or her entourage was not searched or scanned in any way,” he also told Independent Newspapers.

Controlled ivory trade is allowed in Zimbabwe, but it cannot export ivory. 

Christopher Mutsvangwa, special advisor to President Emmerson Mnangagwa who was observing Russian elections last week, said from Moscow: ”We will seek answers from all parties including former first lady Grace Mugabe … about their knowledge of the illegal export of prohibited items from our country”.

Two Zimbabwe men, Faricken Madzinga and Tafadzwa Pamire - both in their mid 40’s - allegedly leaders of two poaching syndicates - were both arrested in Harare in February and will appear in court on April 9 charged with possession of  tusks after a ‘sting’ last month with Steirn. They were carrying six large tusks worth more than $30 000 as unprocessed ivory when they were apprehended. 

“I met the two with some tusks, we then drove to a suburb in Harare, and I was followed,  and we were all arrested. I was released 12 hours later, and I will be the main state witness in this case,” Steirn said.

 Independent Newspapers has copies of the charge sheets from the Harare Magistrate’s Court. 

Steirn has several hours of footage where for the first time the syndicate bosses spoke of their relationship with Grace Mugabe and how she orchestrated her clientele, mainly in Aisia.

They also speak of the  distribution of the tusks via Harare International Airport, (renamed the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport weeks before he was out of power,)  covered by false documentation and pre arrangements with airport security that the consignments, sometimes a tonne heavy,  were on their way, and would not be scanned. 

On December 11, nearly a month after Mugabe was no longer in power, a 200 kg consignment of ivory was stopped at the airport by security officials. The Mugabe’s left the airport aboard an Air Zimbabwe Boeing 767 later that night, (22.36) for Singapore.  The consignment of cut ivory was addressed to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

The Civil Aviation Aurthority of Zimbabwe failed to answer questions sent to them about a page in its Airport Security Protocol in use while Mugabe was in power which allowed the first family and their entourage as well as their unaccompanied baggage to pass through without scanning or searching. 

Grace Mugabe also failed to respond to several approaches to her last week seeking comment from her on the ivory allegations. 

In Harare on Wednesday, a local newspaper, The Daily News, carried a front page report about Mrs Mugabe and how she may have been “sucked in” to an ivory “scam.”

Mnangagwa sacked the board of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in February after allegations connecting some of its personnel with the illegal export of ivory tusks taken out of storage from the protected warehouse. 

Grace Mugabe has spent more then $140 million on property alone in the last few years but doesn’t earn any salary. Her husband’s pay as president from 2013 was R320 000. (He earned much less prior to Zimbabwe’s dollarisation in 2009.) 

She also built another mansion, and massively invested in farming activities and lavished cash on her family, particularly her sons who lead a debauched life in Johannesburg last year after they were forced to leave Dubai. 

Robert Mugabe was ousted from power last November by the military - which is unconstitutional - but only one, brief round of gunfire  was heard around the city - against a handful of politicians who fled into exile last November. So far no one has been reported missing since then. 

Mugabe’s departure was greeted with ecstasy across the country even within the heart of the ruling Zanu PF party. Many surrounding countries, in the region, privately welcomed the end of Mugabe’s 37 year rule. 

The new government, lead by Mnangangwa was legally installed in power before the end of that month, and has pledged to hold free and fair elections in July, without any violence or voter roll cheating, which punctuated Mugabe’s election victories since the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. 

South African Kumi Naidoo, Chair of Africans Rising for Justice Peace and Dignity and incoming Secretary General at Amnesty International said:”For Grace Mugabe this is is an outrageous abuse of power which not only violates national laws but also international treaties and obligations.  Zimbabweans need accountability and the legal system in Zimbabwe should compel her to pay back all these resources unlawfully accumulated.”

Blondie Leatham, who runs the last protected place for Zimbabwe’s remaining few rhino’s in southern Zimbabwe said he was “shocked” to hear why the Parks board had been sacked. He said poaching syndicates use elephant ivory to boost their turnover when they couldn’t find the more valuable rhino horn. “We are very depressed about continuing rhino poaching and all other poaching, particularly elephants. Soon there will be nothing left.”

"If they charge and arrest her, (Grace Mugabe) and she goes to jail for wildlife crimes, that will changes the dynamic of the entire perception of wildlife trafficking across Africa,” Steirn said. 

Grace Mugabe’s ‘indemnity’ from when she was first lady will be challenged in court in Pretoria in May in connection with allegations she beat up and wounded a young Johannesburg woman last August. 

Independent Foreign Service