But many things conspire against even the most honest and rigorous attempts to learn what is really happening to Africa’s remaining wild elephants. How many carcasses are covered with branches or otherwise elude the rangers on the ground? How many elephants hidden in the trees are being missed by the aerial census takers? How many elephants are being double-counted because they have crossed a national border or wandered into the next aerial transect? How many confiscated tusks are not making it to the strong room, or are disappearing from it and being shipped to Asia in the illegal consignments? And this barely scratches the surface of the unknowns.
Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
Foreign journalists are not welcome in Mugabe’s failed state. There are reports of some getting roughed up and thrown in prison or put on the next plane. So I decide to enter as a tourist, listing my profession as musician. I am coming to see Victoria Falls and the country’s other wonders. I don’t tell them I’ll be going around with Johnny Rodrigues, who runs the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which he founded in 1999 with 16 other concerned citizens.
Johnny, 62, a diesel mechanic by day, is short but solid as a rock. Back in the day, he did covert operations in the Rhodesian Army against Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrillas. He looks like a cross between Robert Shaw and Norman Mailer, only Portuguese. His parents were from Madeira and moved to Harare when he was four. Last year, Johnny exposed Mugabe for serving the meat of three elephants at one of his re-election rallies. He has had death threats, survived two attempts to drive him off the road, and been declared an enemy of the state. Of his 16 original collaborators, most have left the country, and the ones still here are afraid of having anything to do with him. But he remains absolutely fearless. “I put my balls on the table long ago. If they want to kill me, they can put the bullet right here,” he says, pointing to the middle of his forehead.
We drive down to Hwange National Park, which is as big as Connecticut but has only around 60 rangers on anti-poaching patrols. Hwange is the largest park in Zimbabwe and has one of the largest herds of elephants in Africa. It’s supposed to be 50,000, but Johnny doesn’t believe it. “Where are they then?” he asks after we spend the day driving 300 miles all over the park and only see, at sunset, two bulls and a smaller elephant quickly cross the road. There are none in the 75 pans, or artificial water holes, none in the vleis, the grassy vales between the forested little hills, only a few skittish zebras and impalas and warthogs, a tiny fraction of what there used to be.
What we do see are the skeletons of dozens of elephants that have been killed right along the road: huge pelvises and skulls and leg bones, already bleached white by the sun, scattered around among the teak trees, with piles of dung left by other elephants, which is how they express sorrow at the death of one of their own. Elephants are clearly aware of death and capable of grief.
The smell of putrescence leads us to a carcass whose decomposition is more advanced than the one at Kuku Group Ranch. This one died on its side. Its skin is draped over its staggered, fleshless legs like a deflated balloon; the upper half of its rib cage is missing, its innards gutted by hyenas and vultures. The tusks are long gone. We learned about this victim from two of Johnny’s informants. It was killed half a mile inside the park border. The rangers tracked the killers to the adjacent hunting lodge. The lodge’s guides claimed they shot it on their property; it was part of its six-elephant annual quota. The wounded animal fled into the park—and they took its tusks because they were rightfully theirs.
Zimbabwe’s dozens of hunting lodges cater to trophy-hunters, most of whom are from Texas, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. They pay between $10,000 and $60,000—money that goes to the government and the lodge—to kill a big bull and are allowed to ship home its head and tusks. A video on YouTube called “elephant safari kill shot” shows an American man sneaking up to within 30 or 40 yards of an elephant in some trees and dropping it with a brain shot, then exulting, “We did it! Oh man! Big-game hunting is one of the most exciting things there is in the world. You got your grizzlies, you got your lions, you got leopards, you got your buffalo. But I’m here to tell you, baby: ain’t nothing like the elephant!”
And the hunters are only one type of human predator the elephants in Zimbabwe have to worry about, Johnny explains. “The rangers are killing them and other animals for rations, which they are allowed to do every Thursday, and if they didn’t they would starve, because the government isn’t giving them anything to eat,” he says. “Then the local people who are setting snares. You can’t blame them because they have to feed their families, and there’s 80 percent unemployment. Then the military, who have posts all over the country and elephant quotas that nobody is reinforcing, so they are exceeding them and selling the ivory to the Chinese. Then the professional hunters who are providing meat to the local communities. They have a 500-elephant quota, which they are petitioning to be increased by 180. Then the cronies of Mugabe to whom he gave the private game conservancies he confiscated. They have converted them into hunting camps and are liquidating the animals. Each has a slaughterhouse and some have their own butchery and boneyard. I’ve seen pictures of one of them that was solid white bone for several acres. They supply bushmeat to the tourist lodges and the local food stores. And finally there are the industrial South African poachers who fly over the border from Limpopo and are helped by Zimbabwean exiles who know the ropes and where animals are and who to pay off. They are very organized. Two were just caught with 2,000 zebra skins.”
With all this killing, Johnny doesn’t think there are anywhere near 100,000 to 120,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, as the government is claiming. He suspects it’s more like 30,000 to 40,000. There hasn’t been a census since 2006, when 85,000, give or take 7,000, were counted. “We have investigators who flew around in Chizarira Park, and all they saw was 900 carcasses, and we know a lot of the ivory is being sold to the Chinese,” he says.
At a pan called the Hide we find five giraffes. “Hello, boys,” Johnny says to them, and, firing up a cigarette, reflects, “We have much to learn from the animals. When they come to the water holes, each species has its turn. I made a 24-hour video of this pan five years ago, when there was still wildlife in the park. Elephant, giraffe, zebras, sable, kudu, warthog, baboons, buffalo, even hyenas and jackals—all your different species came, and each took its turn to take a drink. It was like Noah’s Ark. And after all had a drink they came back a second time, each in its turn. And you say to yourself, Why can’t humans learn from that? We’d kill each other to get to the water.”
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
There is ivory for sale right in the tourist shops in downtown Victoria Falls. A saleswoman shows us a two-foot tusk carved into a curving procession of elephants that costs $2,000. The tusk doesn’t have the requisite parks-department stamp. The saleswoman in another store has a two-and-a-half-foot tusk with a longer procession of carved elephants that she’ll let me have for the same price. She says it is ivory from culls.
South Africa put a stop to culling in 1994, but it is still going on in Zimbabwe. Between 1960 and 1994, 46,755 elephants were culled here. The rationale was “to conserve biological diversity,” which was supposedly being destroyed by excessive numbers of elephants. As many as 5,000 were shot and killed in Hwange in the space of three months in 1980, and in 2008 some British hunters were allowed to wipe out an entire family group of 11 in Hwange, as part of a cull of its population of supposedly 50,000. According to Graham Child, a former director of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Zimbabwe, “Since ’86, and especially 1992, the department has been using high numbers as a political pawn and for generating income mainly from sport hunting, and concerns for habitats on which the future of elephants and many other wildlife depend appear to have been forsaken.”