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Thursday, 7 September, 2000, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Poachers feast on Zimbabwe's land crisis
African elephants
Save Valley Conservancy is home to nearly 600 elephants
By BBC's Grant Ferrett in Save, Zimbabwe

Africa's biggest privately-owned wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe faces extinction as poachers exploit the ongoing land crisis to wreak havoc.

map of Zimbabwe
Poachers threaten future of Save wildlife sanctuary
Save Valley Conservancy is one of the areas worst affected by the continuing illegal occupation of white-owned land by government supporters led by the war veterans association.

Initially, the conservancy was not badly affected when the occupations began at the end of February.

But since the elections in June, the picture has worsened dramatically.

Agonising deaths

Poachers have taken advantage of the government's continuing failure to restore the rule of law to steal animals for meat on a commercial scale.

In one section of the conservancy, a 14km perimeter fence has been cut down and turned into primitive wire snares.

war veterans
War veterans have illegally settled on white-farmers land
Hundreds of animals, including antelopes, warthogs, and zebras have suffered slow and agonising deaths in the traps.

One rhino escaped serious injury in spite of dragging part of a tree attached to a snare for several days.

Four elephants have been lost - two of them shot after escaping through the broken down fence.

Game imports

Nearly 10 years ago, Save comprised more than 20 separate cattle ranches of nearly barren land.

A succession of poor rainy seasons culminating in a catastrophic drought in the early 1990s brought the ranchers to the brink of collapse.

The ranchers came up with a radical survival plan, removing internal fences to create one huge game conservancy covering 340,000 hectares.

Game was imported, including rare black rhinos, which had been poached to near extinction in Zimbabwe's Zambezi valley.

They are now breeding at a faster rate in Save than anywhere in the world.

Flourishing wilderness

More than 600 elephants were moved in from a neighbouring park, and more were expected to follow.

Predators such as wild dogs and lions returned of their own accord.

black rhino
The black rhino population was flourishing
Good management, international backing and a series of above average rainy seasons helped to create a flourishing and diverse wilderness in the space of just a decade.

Foreign tourists and hunters were coming in increasing numbers to enjoy this previously little-known corner of Zimbabwe.

A share of the profits was diverted to local villagers, who were encouraged to see the wildlife as a valuable potential source of income rather than as pests.

Non-interference

It has taken just a few months for the future of the whole project to be thrown into doubt.

Save's backers can do little more than appeal to the authorities to enforce the law.

The police say they have been told not to interfere by the government, which describes the whole land issue as political.

Hopes that ministers might make an exception for Save, have so far remained unfulfilled.

The performance of the new Home Affairs minister, John Nkomo, offers little, if any, hope of change.

Home Affairs minister, John Nkomo
Mr Nkomo appears to fear the war veterans
Visiting the minister's office in search of an explanation, I was confronted outside his door by 11 policemen, all armed with automatic weapons.

Mr Nkomo plainly fears the war veterans more than they fear him.

Therefore, chances of him taking firm action to restore the rule of law seem very slim indeed.

Directive

At Save, though, they are considering the implications of a directive from one of Zimbabwe's vice-presidents that the police become actively involved to prevent further poaching.

The highly experienced game scouts say they will believe it when they see it.

For the moment, they continue to turn their skills not to tracking and monitoring the wildlife, but keeping a lookout for poachers.

The most obvious sign is apparent to even the most casual observer.

Look up into the sky and the vultures are circling. Another two Kudu antelopes are found rotting in the snares.

Save, one of the most beautiful parts of Zimbabwe faces being turned into a wasteland unless the authorities act quickly.

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See also:

03 Aug 00 | Africa
Mugabe denies farm truce
26 Apr 00 | Africa
Who owns the land?
08 Aug 00 | Africa
Summit backs Zimbabwe over land
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