Incidents of poaching in Zimbabwe game reserves persisted during Covid-19 induced national lockdowns resulting in the country losing millions of dollars in potential tax revenue, wildlife authorities have said.
The absence of tourists and reduced economic activities in communities surrounding the parks have been cited as factors that have contributed to widespread poaching over the last year.
Wildlife veteran at Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust, Dr Cris Fogging, said there was an in increase poaching activities in areas such as Victoria Falls.
"What we have noticed is that there is an increase in snares for poaching purposes," he said.
"We know that there has been an increase in poaching mainly for domestic purposes using various forms of snares since the communities no longer have economic activities to support their families.
"National lockdown has seen many communities losing businesses and jobs leaving them with no source of income.
"So communities near game parks end up poaching to earn a living and this has been evidenced by an increase in snares.
"And elephants are susceptible to these snares. We are still working on the animals being caught and the numbers of animals caught."
A report by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a Non-Governmental Organisation in Zimbabwe which specialises in environment and wildlife management, has pointed out that there was a surge in poaching in the first two months of lockdown in 2020.
Information gathered by CNRG indicates that a total of 1,150 snares were recovered between March and April 2020 and a total of 75 local poachers were arrested in April, while two poachers were killed during the same period.
Mr Farai Maguwu, Director of CNRG, said although numbers have not been quantified as yet, the country might have lost millions of dollars during the country's national lockdowns due to poaching.
"During the national lockdowns, there was minimal staff at national parks such as rangers and coupled with the absence of tourists and this meant an increase in poaching activities," Mr Maguwu said.
"Information we have gathered so far indicates that there has been an increase in poaching activities in 2020 when Covid-19 induced lockdowns were introduced compared to the previous year when there were no lockdowns."
According to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks), 322 elephants were killed by poachers between 2016 and 2019, largely for their tusks.
These are then shipped out to Asia, via South Africa, but the real number may be much higher, according to wildlife groups.
A kilogramme of ivory fetches up to US$1 500 on the Asian black market, offering lucrative incentive for poachers.
A single tusk can weigh up to 110kg, and can sell for as much as US$165 000.
Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Dr Mangaliso Ndlovu admitted the pandemic had disrupted the industry.
He, however, said Government had put in place enough measures to curb poaching especially during national lockdowns.
"We put in measures to ensure that our animals are protected. Rangers were part of the essential staff and we never reduced the number of rangers that protected our animals," he told the publication.
"At the moment we have no evidence of poaching."
"There is no evidence that there is poaching taking place in these areas."
In September last year, Zimbabwe authorities confiscated 25 monkeys smuggled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which were bound for South Africa.
Mr Maguwu said smuggled monkeys highlighted how porous borders can be and how easy it was for illegal wildlife syndicates to operate in Zimbabwe and surrounding countries.
"Poachers use the porous borders to smuggle the tusks and with the
Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of border security has been of concern not only in Zimbabwe but most countries in Africa," he added.
"Zimbabwe has lost millions of dollars in potential tax revenue and possibly hunting license fees to poaching syndicates that illicitly kill and smuggle elephant tusks across the Zambezi River into Zambia."
A global ban on culling and export of ivory by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has only heightened the problem, according to Zimbabwean officials who have pressed for permission to legally cull and trade wildlife.
ZimParks spokesperson Mr Tinashe Farawo recently said the country's game reserves have breached their carrying capacity and can no longer accommodate all the elephants hence the escalation of human-wildlife conflicts.
Zimbabwe's game reserves can accommodate only 50 000 elephants but currently carry over 85 000.
This has made Zimbabwe a lucrative playground for complex international illicit ivory trade syndicates.
According to the Global Financial Integrity, a US-based think tank, which analyses illicit financial flows, says illegal wildlife trade is the fifth-largest criminal industry worldwide.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that African economies lose around US$50 billion annually to illicit financial flows.
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