HARARE, Zimbabwe – The economic chaos engulfing Zimbabwe is decimating the country's once teeming wildlife, according to a conservation group, which painted a grim picture of nature reserves staffed by poorly trained rangers who cruelly kill the animals they are meant to protect.
In one case, rangers pumped at least 40 bullets into an elephant suspected of encroaching on a settlement in remote northwestern Zimbabwe, said the independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force in a report released Tuesday.
A witness told the task force the elephant appeared to have been "kneecapped" in the first bursts of fire. Several minutes and at least 40 shots later, a single heavy caliber shot was heard.
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The rangers used AK-47s, while heavier firepower might have meant a more humane death. The animal's meat was sold to local residents, the task force said.
Another elephant was shot 16 times.
Both animals were shot in full view of "disgusted and heartbroken" tourists, some of whom vowed not to return to Zimbabwe, said the task force, which was formed in 2001 by a group of local environmental activists concerned about illegal poaching and government seizure of wildlife preserve land.
"On the one hand, Zimbabwe is trying to promote tourism, and on the other it is destroying any chances of reviving it," said the task force in its latest monthly report.
No comment was immediately available from the government or state wildlife officials.
Christina Pretorius of the South Africa-based International Fund for Animal Welfare called the situation in Zimbabwe's nature reserves "outrageous. Absolutely outrageous."
"Zimbabwe wildlife is absolutely unmanaged," she said.
In total, at least five elephants were shot by rangers looking for a rogue elephant that killed a safari park caretaker in the Chirundu district in the Zambezi River valley on the border with neighboring Zambia, 190 miles northwest of Harare, the conservation task force said.
Problems with rogue elephants have increased in Zimbabwe as the mighty mammals roam into villages in search of food and water.
Although no reliable figures exist, Zimbabwe's elephant population is generally thought to be on the rise, as it is in neighboring South Africa. But whereas South Africa is able to manage its herds, there is no control in Zimbabwe.
Numbers of other animals, by contrast, have plunged since President Robert Mugabe began seizing white owned-farms and game reserves five years ago.
"The population of antelopes is being decimated by poaching, be it for the pot or for the illegal sale of their body parts," said Pretorius.
Rhino populations have also been hit hard by poaching, she said.
One witness told the task force that four years ago the Zambezi River flood plain teemed with animals.
"Today you are lucky to see an impala [African antelope] down there over a weeklong period," the report quoted the witness as saying.
The impala used to be one of Zimbabwe's most widespread and prolific animal species but has fallen victim to rampant poaching.
The group said that in the 5,400-square-mile Hwange National Park, the population of lions was down from more than 2,000 to 18 males and about 200 females.
Wildlife experts said this was largely due to the shortage of antelope and other prey, combined with the breakdown of artificial waterholes. They said this was forcing the lions to move to areas — mainly in Botswana — where they could survive.
The report revived criticism of the state wildlife authority, accused of indiscipline in its ranks, with some disgruntled and underpaid rangers profiteering on meat and illegal ivory.
The National Parks and Wildlife Authority lets its rangers and staffers in bush areas shoot a "meat quota" for themselves and sometimes supply surplus meat to villagers bordering reserves to discourage poaching.
Visitors to the state-run Chivero conservancy, 20 miles west of Harare, this week reported seeing no wildebeest and were told by rangers most of the herd was shot for "ration meat."
Like most government departments, the parks authority has suffered from the nation's worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1980. Acute shortages of hard currency, gasoline, equipment and spare parts have brought some of its operations, including some anti-poaching patrols, to a near standstill.
Its revenues have been hit by a sharp decline in foreign tourism in five years of political and economic turmoil.
In the Hwange National Park, only donations of fuel and volunteer labor have kept 34 of its 53 artificial watering holes supplied with water from wells equipped with gasoline-fueled pumps.
The task force said it recently bought 16 new pumps and provided spare parts for others. The watering holes were created as a conservation measure in dry areas of the park to attract wild animals — and tourists — away from natural water sources where an overpopulation of animals was destroying their habitat.
The task force alleged hunting concessions, controlled largely by members of the ruling party elite, were spilling inside the park's boundaries, where ancient teak, redwood and mukwa trees were also being commercially felled in violation of conservation laws.