WASHINGTON – Political and military elites are seizing protected areas in one of Africa's last bastions for elephants, putting broad swaths of Zimbabwe at risk of becoming fronts for ivory poaching, according to a nonprofit research group's report that examines government collusion in wildlife trafficking.
Zimbabwe has maintained robust elephant populations compared with other countries on the continent. But economic penalties imposed by the United States and Europe have led Zimbabweans with ties to President Robert Mugabe's ruling party to find new methods of making money. The report, set for release Monday, says they may be turning to elephants' highly valued ivory tusks.
Zimbabwe's embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, commissioned the report from Washington-based C4ADS to better understand the role organized crime and corrupt government officials play in ivory trafficking across Africa, said Adam Roberts, Born Free USA's chief executive officer.
Wildlife trafficking long has been viewed as a conservation issue, but it has exploded into an illicit global economy monopolized by mafia-like syndicates and enabled by high-level bureaucrats and powerful business interests. The report describes a toxic combination of conflict, crime and failures of governance throughout Africa that threatens to wipe out the continent's dwindling elephant herds.
China, the world's largest market for ivory, is compounding the threat, the report said. Chinese companies have won lucrative contracts in Zimbabwe for mining and construction projects near remote elephant habitats, bringing waves of workers and new roads that can be exploited by East Asian crime organizations, the report said.
North of Zimbabwe, in central Africa, an estimated 23,000 elephants, or roughly 60 each day, were killed last year. A pound of elephant tusk sells for about $1,500 on the black market. That's more than double the price just five years ago. Ivory is used to make carved ornaments and trinkets.
Rhinoceroses also are heavily poached for their horns, which some Asian cultures believe contain medicinal properties.
TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, says there are between 47,000 and 93,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. The gap is due to the fact that full-fledged surveys of the animals have not been carried out since 2007, said Richard Thomas, the organization's spokesman.
Across Africa, there are close to 500,000 elephants, a fraction of the nearly 10 million that roamed there just 100 years ago.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month signaled its worries about the future of Zimbabwe's herds in a decision blocking the importation of African elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe during 2014. Noting the cyanide poisoning of 300 elephants last year in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, the agency said it has "significant concerns about the long-term survival of elephants in Zimbabwe."
The ban also applies to Tanzania.
The Obama administration in February published a national strategy for combating the multibillion-dollar poaching industry, relying on many of the same tactics used against terrorist organizations and drug cartels. The plan outlines a "whole of government approach" that includes working with other countries to increase the number of investigations and arrests, using high-tech gear to identify poaching hot spots, and targeting the bank accounts of wildlife traffickers and the corrupt bureaucrats who assist them.
"Our findings shine a bright light on Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sudan, and Kenya, where poachers move across borders with near impunity, slaughter elephants with complete disregard, and use the ivory to fund violent operations across the continent," said Born Free USA's Roberts. "Global leaders cannot stand by while the human tragedy and poaching crisis continue.
Zimbabwe, the report said, could become a poaching hot spot with little warning.
Mugabe has led the country since independence from British rule in 1980. In his early years in power, he expanded public education and health services, making Zimbabwe a beacon on the continent. But Zimbabwe's economy went into meltdown in 2000 after Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms, leading to the collapse of the agriculturally based economy, once the region's breadbasket.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. and the European Union began imposing sanctions against Mugabe and members of his inner circle for human rights abuses, public corruption, and vote-rigging. The penalties set strict business and travel bans. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has blamed the sanctions for Zimbabwe's economic woes.
Among the areas in jeopardy is Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy, a 1,000-square-mile collection of unfenced wildlife reserves that is home to most of the country's elephants and rhinoceroses. Land reform policies have allowed politically connected people to receive hunting permits and land leases in the conservancy, according to C4ADS.
"Many have histories of exploitative business practices, muscling into firms, stripping them of all value, and moving on, which creates a high risk of systematic poaching on seized lands," the report said.
The lack of transparency into the inner workings of Mugabe's government makes it difficult to establish direct links between government loyalists and their interests in wildlife areas. The report said ownership is often masked through associates, family members, and shell companies.
Using data-mining software developed by Palantir, a technology company in California, C4ADS named 18 people involved in what the report describes as the "political/military takeover of Save Valley Conservancy."
They include Maj. Gen. Engelbert Rugeje, the inspector general of Zimbabwe's defense forces. Rugeje is not on the sanctions list maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe has long been aware of concerns over Rugeje.
In the fall of 2009, he was accused of threatening to shoot a Zimbabwean lawmaker who had criticized the general for using soldiers to intimidate voters, according to an embassy cable published by the Wikileaks website. Rugeje previously was reported to the embassy for orchestrating violence in parts of Zimbabwe where candidates who ran against Mugabe's ZANU-PF party were elected to parliament.
A government official reported to be involved in the distribution of wildlife areas to Mugabe loyalists disputed the allegations.
"If I repeat a lie 20 times, does that make it factual?" Francis Nhema told The Associated Press last week.
Nhema leads the ministry tasked by Mugabe with putting in place a program to take over 51 percent control of remaining foreign and white-owned businesses and assets. He formerly ran the environment ministry. He has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2003.
Embassy officials in Harare privately voiced misgivings about Nhema following a 2010 meeting he had with Charles Ray, then the U.S. ambassador. Nhema denied that high-ranking Zimbabwean officials were involved in poaching activities and he rejected reports that land within the Save Valley was being commandeered for personal gain.
"He is soft-spoken and comes across as reasonable," reads a February 2010 cable, marked confidential. "He is, however, at least somewhat disingenuous. ... In short, he toes the ZANU-PF line."