Big bucks trigger Zimbabwe's hunting scramble
A group of senior Zanu-PF officials and game operators are fighting over the Save Valley Conservancy, a large area in the country's lowveld. It has split the government and hurt the recovery of Zimbabwe's tourism industry.
The officials are attracted by a game hunting industry that brings the world's rich and famous to Zimbabwe. They pay thousands of dollars for the thrill of shooting large game.
At the Matetsi Game Reserve, where Donald Trump Jr controversially posed with a shot elephant and a buffalo last year, a three-week lion and a buffalo hunting expedition costs about $52 000. An elephant hunt costs at least $30 000 and hunters pay $14 500 for an elephant bull trophy.
Industry experts say the hunting business brings in about $30-million each year. The Zanu-PF officials believe there is easy and quick cash to be made, according to the minutes of a meeting held recently to replace the managers of the conservancy.
The minutes quote one of the officials, Zanu-PF MP Ailess Baloyi, as saying: "We have been given the rights and that is all there is to it. We are here to make money."
But according to Wilfried Pabst, a German national who is vice-chairperson of the conservancy, the officials are wrong to assume the money will come easily.
"This is a slow and low-return business and not something that makes you rich overnight," he said.
Pabst wrote to the Cabinet to plead for intervention. He said: "By public and recorded statements they [Zanu-PF officials] just want cash."
His plea won the sympathy of Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi, a Zanu-PF minister regarded as a moderate.
In 1991, 21 cattle farmers in the area, hit by years of drought, abandoned farming and formed the conservancy, which covers 200 000 hectares. In 2007, under a land reform programme, leases to the land were offered to members of a consortium of Zanu-PF officials.
They claim that they struggled for years to get farmers in the area to partner with them in the safari business, but their efforts were resisted.
The conservancy has placed adverts in the press to appeal for government protection. But the adverts themselves have courted controversy. One showed a picture of a starving man, accompanied by warnings that villagers would starve if the current owners were forced to cede control.
A Herald columnist described the adverts as "racist" and said the white owners of the parks were keen to protect a "Rhodesian island".
The controversy has divided the government. The consortium is backed by Environment Minister Francis Nhema and other radical members of Zanu-PF. Apart from Mzembi, who opposes the takeover, Vice-president Joice Mujuru, who summoned all the ministers involved to a meeting last week, is also said to be opposed to the consortium.
"It is wrong to have minority ownership of conservancies, but it is even more unpardonable to replace that minority white with a minority black in the face of a crisis of expectations and thirst for empowerment from our black majority," Mzembi said.
He added that the Zanu-PF officials involved already owned farms elsewhere.
Three chiefs in the area say they want more community involvement and are against a takeover by the consortium.
Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority has warned that poaching in the area is rising and that "the product is being destroyed".
Zimbabwe is co-hosting the United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly next year and the authority is under pressure to resolve the row quickly.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to place a ban on Zimbabwean trophy imports, which would seriously hurt the hunting industry, officials fear. The US accounts for 80% of Zimbabwe's trophy exports.
Among the beneficiaries is Masvingo governor Titus Maluleke, whose office issues hunting licences. Others are Zanu-PF MP Shuvai Mahofa and Higher Education Minister Stan Mudenge.
Several other senior party members hold lucrative hunting concessions elsewhere in Zimbabwe. Among them are Mines Minister Obert Mpofu, Information Minister Webster Shamu and army General Constantine Chiwenga.
The National Parks and Wildlife Authority, which hands out hunting concessions, has always insisted permits are awarded on merit.