April 27, 2009

Elephant Exodus Reported From Troubled Zimbabwe

By ANGUS SHAW, Associated Press Writer
Mon Apr 27, 3:26 pm ET

HARARE, Zimbabwe – Growing pressure from poaching and human encroachment in Zimbabwe has driven hundreds of elephants to migrate from the country and at least one leopard to stalk an upmarket Harare suburb, conservationists said Monday.

The independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force appealed in its latest monthly bulletin for more action — and money — to preserve the troubled nation's wildlife.

In Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, "humans are encroaching more and more into areas previously reserved for wildlife," the task force said.

As many as 400 elephants have crossed the Zambezi River, which separates Zambia from northern Zimbabwe, in recent months, said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the task force.

Three elephants also roamed into the eastern border city of Mutare this month and state wildlife authorities "want to shoot them before they kill somebody," he said.

The task force and a Zimbabwe animal group received official authority to capture and transport the elephants to Chipinda Pools, believed to be their original home area 125 miles (200 kilometers) to the south.

"The problem is funding for the relocation," Rodrigues said. State game rangers "won't wait much longer before destroying the elephants."

In northern Harare, rangers also wanted to track and kill at least one leopard, which also is suspected of having a cub. Rodrigues said the task force set up drugged, baited traps for predators so they could be returned to the wild, but none has been caught since a guard dog was attacked earlier this month.

Tourism and photographic safaris have dropped sharply during years of political and economic turmoil since the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms began in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy in the former regional breadbasket.

Longtime ruler President Robert Mugabe blames Western sanctions for the economic crisis that has led to acute shortages of food, gasoline and the most basic goods.

Poaching of small animals has intensified, with villagers torching the bush to drive even rodents and rock rabbits into traps for food, conservationists say.

Rodrigues said more animal fencing was needed at wildlife preserves to combat poaching and the escape of animals from their natural habitat after being made skittish by gunfire.

Conservationists already have raised the alarm for Zimbabwe's rare rhinos after a sharp increase in poaching over the past year because of a breakdown of law enforcement in the country.

The head of the state Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Morris Mtsambiwa, told state media Monday that his nation faced censure from CITES, which regulates trade in endangered species, for the surge in rhino poaching blamed on "well-coordinated local, regional and international syndicates."

He said one rhino poacher, identified as a former Zimbabwean army officer equipped with a heavy caliber rifle, was shot and killed by rangers in southern Zimbabwe last week. The poacher's accomplices escaped.

"Rhino poaching is now becoming a very serious problem for us. We now have to answer serious questions at CITES," he said.

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