/ 4 October 2013

Police fingered for taking bribes in Hwange poisoning

In the past the southern Africa region had been seen as secure.
The anti-poaching measures will include hiring and training new park rangers. (Gallo Images)

An ecological disaster is unfolding in the country's biggest natural wildlife sanctuary, Hwange National Park.

In the most recent incident, poachers used cyanide to poison elephants for their tusks.

A number of locals with regional connections have been arrested over the poisoning that has resulted in the deaths of about 100 elephants.

The Zimbabwe and Wildlife Management Authority estimates that an unspecified number of predators, including vultures and lions, have also died after feeding on the carcasses of the elephants and other animals left to rot in the reserve.

Hwange is Africa's third largest wildlife sanctuary after Tanzania's Serengeti and South Africa's Kruger National Park.

But it is the allegation that police officers are accepting bribes from suspected poachers that is raising eyebrows and questions over the ability of the police to combat poaching syndicates.

Court documents seen by the Mail & Guardian during the ongoing trial of some of the suspected poachers show that police officers demanded bribes for the release of a vehicle impounded from a poaching syndicate, which has been operating for five years under the noses of park officials at Hwange.

Suspects in court
Two suspected kingpins of the syndicate, Clever Khumalo (44) and Sipho Mafu (54), appeared in court in Bulawayo.

They were charged with delivering or offering toxic substances, and also of illegally possessing ivory in contravention of the Parks and Wildlife Act and the Environmental Management Act.

They were allegedly selling the ivory in Harare and South Africa. In their statements, Khumalo and Mafu said they committed the offence in the company of several people from Bulawayo and Harare.

According to their statements, at one time police in Harare stopped their vehicle, which they had hired from a Bulawayo resident.

Elephant tusks were discovered when the vehicle was searched.

The two said they fled the scene and left behind the vehicle and the tusks, which were impounded.

Demanding bribe
The suspects said some policemen, led by an officer identified only as "Gankata", demanded a $10 000 bribe to release the vehicle after tracing its Bulawayo-based owner.

The suspects claim in their statements that they gave police $3 000 and that three police officers from Harare allegedly came to Bulawayo after seven days to collect the balance of $7 000.

Khumalo and Mafu said another man, identified as "Gumbo", facilitated the transactions and, then they accompanied the police officers back to Harare.

They stopped in Norton so the officers could phone Gankata, after which they drove to his house with the money.

While in Harare, Khumalo and Mafu alleged that they slept at Cranborne Police Station in a cottage belonging to another policeman identified in court papers as "Musoma".

They said the vehicle was returned to them in the morning. Khumalo and Mafu were remanded until October 8.

Ire over cops' involvement
The involvement of the police in the scandal has raised the ire of environmentalist lobby groups, and Johnny Rodrigues, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, has called on the government to set up a commission of inquiry.

"What is happening at Hwange is a major crisis and a scandal. It is not only the police officers named in court papers — there are big fish involved," said Rodrigues. He refused to name them.

Rodrigues said many animals were dying because of the cyanide, and the effect on the surrounding areas would be felt for years to come.

"It will take at least five years to neutralise the poison in the soils because the juice from the poisoned animals will sink into the ground, and the coming rains will certainly wash poison into the drinking pools.

"All those involved in this issue, including the police, should be held accountable," he said.

Police national spokesperson Charity Charamba was not immediately available to comment on the allegations against the police.