Conservationists say the Zimbabwe government is refusing to look into allegations of the alleged involvement of senior officials.
Zimbabwe says it wants to raise $40-million to fight increasingly daring poachers, a battle that would include dealing with well-connected cartels, poor villagers marginalised by wealthy game parks, and a parks agency desperately short of cash and rangers.
Conservationists accuse the government of refusing to investigate possible links between senior government officials and wealthy ivory smuggling cartels.
The poisoning of at least 100 elephants in the Hwange National Park has drawn outrage and spurred the government to pledge tougher action. Poachers used cyanide to poison water in the park.
Environment, Water and Climate Minister Saviour Kasukuwere told the Mail & Guardian this week that $40-million is needed to equip rangers from the department of national parks and wildlife, who are fighting more sophisticated and better-armed poaching syndicates.
The government has approached big businesses to help raise some of the funds.
Kasukuwere is talking tough, saying he will take the fight to the doorsteps of those behind the poaching.
Trail to powerful interests
But it is a trail that may lead him to powerful interests, some of them within the government, according to many conservationists.
"Our government knows some of those behind this," the head of one of the country’s largest tour operators said this week, declining to be named.
"I know for a fact names have been passed to the government, but there is nothing being done."
Johnny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said deeper investigation is needed.
"The big issue is that there are some bigwigs involved in poaching and this should be thoroughly investigated," he said.
However, Kasukuwere is cautious about launching any investigations into the possible involvement of senior figures in the government.
"We cannot as a government respond to rumour mongering; we are much more serious than that. We will not cast aspersions on any individuals, whoever they are," he said this week.
Kasukuwere has previously said, however, that the poaching ring is "a well-organised syndicate that includes locals, middlemen and financiers based outside the country".
Defence Minister Sydney Sekeramayi has suggested that the army may be sent to help fight poachers in Hwange, but Kasukuwere said that it is too early to do this.
Kasukuwere said the local poachers had been paid up to R700 each by an unnamed South African buyer to slaughter the animals.
Yet some say poaching is a result of the failure of Campfire, a wildlife management programme forged to provide economic benefits to people living on the edges of game reserves.
Campfire was established by the department of national parks and wildlife, with the support of donors.
Threat to Campfire
Until recently, Campfire has been successful in many areas, but illegal resettlement in and around parks, the seizure of some conservancies, and a drop in revenues earned by large game hunting concessions are threatening the programme.
"People living in communal areas adjacent to national parks should work closely with parks authorities to fight poaching," Campfire head Charles Jonga said.
However, critics say the programme has not benefited those communities enough, while wealthy Zimbabweans cream off the industry by taking over rich hunting concessions.
At the Matetsi Game Reserve, a three-week lion and buffalo hunting expedition costs $52 000. An elephant hunt costs at least $30 000 and a hunter will pay $14 500 for an elephant bull trophy.
Industry experts say the hunting business brings in about $30-million each year.
This has made concession owners very wealthy, but little has trickled down to communities in the areas, and poaching syndicates find easy recruits among the poor in the areas.
The smuggling rings stretch to China and Dubai, according to deputy police commissioner general Innocent Matibiri.
"Some time in July, a wooden artefact was flown to Dubai [from Harare] as an unaccompanied parcel. It was discovered that there were pieces of ivory that weighed 447kg stashed under the wooden sculpture … It is quite obvious that this is a syndicate that involves people in Dubai," Matibiri said.
This is not the first poisoning of game. In 2011, animals died after poachers poisoned water holes at the Gonarezhou, Mana Pools, Charara and Matusadona game parks.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force claimed at the time that a group of Chinese miners in the Mushumbi area had used poisoned bread and cabbages to kill elephants. But the parks department said it investigated the claims and found no evidence to back the charges.
There are also not enough game rangers to cover Hwange, which ranges over 14 000km2.
The department of parks and wildlife needs at least 700 rangers, but it has just more than 100. Each ranger can be asked to cover 200m2 on their own.
But the rangers are ill-equipped and there are too few two-way radios. Added to that, the poachers are often better armed than the rangers.
The manner of the Hwange slaughter has surprised rangers, who are used to dealing with villagers using snares and other "traditional ways of poaching", said Caroline Washaya-Moyo, a department spokesperson.