What happened to Zimbabwe's rhino?

Reports that Zimbabwe has lost 1 500 black rhino in what appears to be dubious circumstances should be of great concern to all conservationists. In fact, it warrants thorough investigation.

All along the country has been lobbying for the lifting of the ban on the trade of both ivory and rhino horn claiming that it had more than 2 000 black rhino and about 60 000 elephant and should therefore be rewarded for its sound wildlife management instead of being punished for it.

Zimbabwe together with other Southern African countries argued at the last Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Japan that they were professionally managing their national parks and were therefore faced with the problem of a wildlife surplus.

Their request to have the restrictions on the sale and disposal of elephant and rhino products lifted were resisted by other delegates because they strongly believed that the record of these countries was less than exemplary. And it appears they are being proven right which should be an embarrassment to Zimbabwe.

The stark reality is that the country only has 500 black rhino. The big question now is what happened to the country's black rhino?

At one time the department of national parks even claimed it had a very high poacher kill rate. It claimed it was accounting for more poachers than they were killing the rhino.

Reports, however, indicate that 150 poachers were killed since 1985 meaning that the country lost 100 rhino for each poacher killed. In fact, Zimbabwe's poacher-kill rate aroused the curiosity of human rights activists who tried to carry out a thorough study into poaching arguing that human life should not be sacrificed over that of wildlife.

Zimbabwe, which had adopted a shoot-first policy with poachers, was accused of gross human rights violations as these activists argued that they should capture and perhaps prosecute these poachers instead of killing them as most were driven into poaching by economic hardships.

Another argument posed by the human rights activists was that the poachers were merely messengers of powerful economic or political forces who thrived on the desperation of the poachers who are struggling to earn a living.

Some diplomats were reported to have been involved in the trade and there were also reports that Zimbabwean government ministers as well as officials of the department of national parks and wildlife might have been involved. The mysterious disappearance of the black rhino while the department of national parks claims to have things under control seems to suggest that they know how the rhino disappeared. They should therefore be asked to explain the wide discrepancy between the actual figure of surviving rhino and the figure they have been giving to the people.

There have also been claims that diplomatic bags were being used to export rhino horn and ivory and that some government ministers had entered into secret deals to supply the horn. This too should be investigated.

There have been arguments from certain circles that lack of commitment and support from the government has hampered the upkeep of wildlife. Proponents of this argument say that the department of national parks should be given $100 million to effectively protect the wildlife. This is in fact more than the entire budget of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism which was this year allocated $81.4 million up from nearly $80 million last year. The department of national parks itself was allocated $37.5 million.

While some critics are saying the amount is too low, this should be taken in the context of the country's entire budget. The Ministry of mines' total budget for example is only $40 million and that of the Ministry of Information, Posts and Telecommunications is $39.4 million. Worse still the government only allocated $20 million to the social dimension fund to benefit the entire nation which is 20 000 times the number of black rhino now in the country.

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