Harare - The ranger waiting to help us to find the rhinos in
Zimbabwe's Kyle Recreational Park was in camouflage.
Rifle alongside her, she stood on the open truck, scanning
the bleached long grasses near the edge of Lake Mutirikwi for the tell-tale
grey shadows that betray the grazing spots of some of Africa's most endangered
Rangers in this relatively small park in southern Zimbabwe
are fiercely protective of the animals here, mounting a 24-hour guard.
That often means camping out next to them.
"But the tents we bought for [the rangers] were not
good quality," another ranger explained on a visit earlier in 2015.
"They didn't last."
Allegations that disgruntled low-ranking members of the
Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) may be behind the
poisonings with cyanide of 62 elephants in Hwange and Kariba are causing
One of the biggest pleasures in holidaying in Zimbabwe's
national parks is meeting and talking to rangers from Zimparks. Working in
often difficult conditions for about the same pay as a teacher in public
service (around $500 US per month), they are extremely loyal to the game they
This week Zimparks manager Tawanda Gotosa stressed the
"sacrifice and dedication to duty" of Zimbabwe's rangers, while
confirming that two former contract workers were under investigation for one
case of poisoning.
‘We’re paid okay’
"We are certainly not the best neither are we the
worst-paid conservation organisation," Gotosa told the Southern Eye
"We always act swiftly to deal with malcontents,"
The Friends of Hwange, an independently-run conservation
support group also defended state rangers, stressing in a
statement Friday that none of the staff at Sinamatella - the site of
two poisoning incidents in Hwange in recent weeks - had been implicated.
"In both cases, poachers were disturbed by parks
patrols and fled," the group said, adding that the poachers were tracked
"towards the boundary of the park." This would suggest that the
poachers in those incidents were not rangers, since they are accommodated
Sadly this is not the first mass poisoning incident in
Hwange: two years ago, in 2013, a spate of devastating poisonings left around
200 (some reports say 300) elephants dead.
There were arrests in the wake of those poisonings - and
they were not of rangers. Almost all of them were of villagers living around
Hwange. They were the ones who laid the cyanide on the salt-licks near the
watering holes: the ones on the lowest link of what was almost certainly then,
like now, a carefully-crafted chain of command stretching down from unnamed -
and no doubt still free - "bigwigs", as the local press calls
Hwange villagers may have been paid just 100 US per tusk
they collected but that represents a significant windfall. Communities living
around national parks are often low-income.
Suspicions over the possible involvement of parks employees
were fuelled by the arrest in the first week of October of three parks
employees - two rangers and an ecologist - at Harare International Airport,
where they were apparently trying to smuggle tusks out. The official Herald
newspaper reported that the tusks had been stolen from a strong room at the
authority's Hwange headquarters at Main Camp.
Zimbabwe's rangers haven't always enjoyed a good reputation,
particularly during the 2000-8 crisis. That was partly to do with the
controversial practice of "ration-hunting", when employees were
ordered to shoot game for food for state occasions or for the work force. One
British woman speaks of her horror when she visited Kyle Recreational Park in
2007 to see a parks truck loaded with freshly shot game. She and her family
have never been back.
There are occasionally whispered poaching allegations
against one or more senior parks employees -- but mostly, rangers enjoy a good
Rory Young, who has trained state rangers in anti-poaching
skills in central, southern, eastern and western Africa said in a telephone
interview: "The Zim parks officers are among the best I have worked
"They are resourceful and skilled and their successes
are... all the more impressive considering the shocking lack of financial and
other resources they have to work with," Young added.