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Story Publication logo June 23, 2006

In Zimbabwe, Ragtag Scouts vs. Poachers


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In Zimbabwe, growing political and economic instability has put unprecedented pressure on the...

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Multiple Authors
Images of Zimbabwe
Image by Jeffrey Barbee. Zimbabwe, 2006.

Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.

We smell the buffalo before we see him. When we find his massive body, it's clear he has been dead for some time. Nobody has used his meat.

"It looks like the shooter was aiming for the heart, but he shot low and it may have gotten the bottom of the lungs here," points out Charles Brightman, coordinator of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit. "That's why this buffalo's been able to run so far, and then died later from its wounds. What a waste. It's a nice old big bull, hey?"

What a waste. It's the story of Zimbabwe these days. Six years after President Robert Mugabe encouraged the violent takeover of white-owned farmland, the country is facing acute food shortages, massive emigration, increasing political repression and more than 1,000 percent inflation. It is also facing environmental devastation.

Poaching here, both commercial and subsistence, is on the rise. Around Victoria Falls, once a top tourist destination, hungry locals are setting tens of thousands of snares to catch protected animals. Poaching gangs with high-caliber weapons are moving into the area. Bush-meat markets, where entrepreneurs illegally sell meat from impala, buffalo and elephant, are sprouting in impoverished townships. Legal meat is too expensive.

The Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit is one small group of Zimbabweans - black and white - trying to fight this environmentally deadly trend.

Here in Victoria Falls National Park, not far from the mile-long falls and some of the fanciest safari lodges in the region, is where Mr. Brightman and the unit's scouts found the buffalo. They'd tracked it from the dozens of vultures overhead.

Brightman's rifle is cocked, and he gives one of his scouts a handgun. Poaching has become a dangerous, high-stakes business in Zimbabwe.

In the past, the unit has discovered hidden butcheries where poachers skin their catch and prepare meat for sale. The scouts have found dead rhinos with their horns cut off - a telltale sign of an international poaching syndicate that will make thousands of dollars selling horns as aphrodisiacs in Asia or as dagger handles in Yemen.

Brightman turns to three other scouts, who've been guarding the carcass: "OK, let's turn him over."


Brightman is the first to grab onto a stiff buffalo leg. He has the tough but relaxed gait of someone who has lived in southern Africa his whole life. His face is boyish but weathered, the look Zimbabweans seem to get from working in the sun and worrying about their country. The group pulls together, and the animal rolls over. The flies crescendo into an angrier, louder cloud.

When they find a carcass, one scout tells me, they will set up an ambush and wait for the poacher to return. They did this once on a Victoria Falls golf course, where workers had found a snared impala. At night, two caddies came to collect their meat, andthe anti-poaching unit pounced. They arrested the men, who were fined.

Brightman pulls out his cellphone to call the park warden. Working with government authorities is crucial for Brightman, even though many conservationists allege that park officials themselves are involved in poaching. If he gets on their bad side, they could easily shut down the unit.

He calls a number on his cellphone: "Hi, senior warden, how are you? I've got a big buffalo bull and it looks like it's been shot with a heavy caliber through the lungs ... it's not far from the safari lodge." He nods and hangs up.

"They're coming," he says.

After making his way out of the bush, through vines and thorns, keeping eyes peeled for snakes and ill-tempered buffalos, Brightman sits in front of his computer, showing slides of animals in various positions of death. These are some of the other poached animals his unit has discovered. The buffalo will be added to the list.

He leans back and sighs: "You know, if a gang of poachers that we arrest have killed a buffalo and sold the meat in the communities illegally, they could make millions of Zimbabwe dollars [$10 using the official exchange rate]. But for the first offense, the fine is 250,000 Zimbabwe dollars.

"Of course," he adds, "it's meaningless to them. They're back in the bush."

Still, he says, he and his scouts must keep working. "Zimbabwe," he says, "she's a beautiful country."


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