Illegal occupiers in Zimbabwe kill hundreds of animals in nature reserve, say conservationists

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Illegal occupiers on an animal reserve in southern Zimbabwe have killed hundreds of animals and torn down several miles (kilometers) of protective fencing, a conservation group said Friday.

Investigators of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force who visited the reserve near the southern border town of Beit Bridge and the Limpopo river reported the occupiers slaughtered 300 zebra for their skins in the last two months. Seven African antelope were killed this week.

The group said the owner of the reserve won a court order to evict the occupiers but it was ignored.

Four miles (7 kilometers) of specialized 16-strand game fencing — 70 miles (112 kilometers) of wire in all — were stolen to make animal traps and snares, the group said.

"It is tragic. Authorities have failed to enforce the judicial order and the slaughter is ongoing," said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the task force.

The population of zebra in the formerly private run wildlife conservancy dropped from about 870 to just 160 — a loss of 710 animals — the group said. Nearly 560 eland, Africa's largest antelope, have also been killed, it said.

Investigators saw zebra skulls lined up along a path and suspected the skins were smuggled to neighboring South Africa where poaching syndicates operate.

Wildebeest, also known as the gnu with its ox-like head and a horse-like mane, were slaughtered too, they said.

The occupiers claimed to be members of a Zhove Conservancy Cooperative but it was not a genuinely registered group. Investigations showed it comprised mostly of loyalists of President Robert Mugabe's party and local officials engaged in often violent seizures of white-owned land for the past decade.

Rodrigues said 480 acres (200 hectares) of trees, standing for some 300 years, were burnt down and the low rainfall area was only suitable for wildlife.

"The ecosystem there is now so fragile that if the land is tilled the soil will end up in the river" nearby, he said.