December 5, 2005 Newsweek Magazine
Death in the Bush
Zimbabwe's animals are dying, which means its people are suffering, too.
by Joshua Hammer

The stench of decay rises from the bush outside of main camp, the dilapidated, near deserted headquarters at Zimbabwe's Huange national park. only a few months ago, the acacia groves, savanna grass and mopane scrub ran thick with wildlife. But now a visitor can drive for miles without seeing anything alive. There's plenty of death, though. A few miles beyond headquarters, the corpses of two male elephants rot in the heat, not far from a watering that dried up in October. Farther along, at the empty Musuma Tourist Camp, the desiccated remains of two kudu and two more elephants lie beside a muddy reservoir. "We think these ones died from disease," says the camp's attendant, who gave his name only as George. "The legs swell up and burst. Then they fall down."

They have fallen by the hundreds. across Huange, a world-renowned wildlife reserve half the size of Belgium, impala, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, leopard and elephant have been roaming the bush this season on desperate -and often futile- search for sustenance. The worst drought to hit southern Africa in years is partly responsible for their plight. But the real problem can be traced to the neglect of men. Over the decades, Zimbabwe has built dozens of artificial pans, or ponds, to sustain wildlife in Huange through hard times. But the whole country now is destitute. Zimbabwe's National Parks and Wildlife Authority, long criticized for mismanagement, indifference and corruption, has been unable -or unwilling- to supply diesel fuel and pumps to keep the watering holes full.

The scale of the devastation is disputed. According to environmental activists, 250 elephants and hundreds of other animals have died from starvation, thirst and blackleg -an infectious disease caused by unusually arid conditions and stress- over the past two months. A's Minister of Tourism, Francis Nehma, acknowledges a problem in Huange, but says that only 40 elephants and 53 buffalo have died. Virtually everyone agrees that more needs to be done to stave off a larger catastrophe. Over the last months, a few private individuals have been making emergency runs to supply the park with needed fuel and spare parts. The first heavy rains fell last week, alleviating thirst but creating new problems: many of the dry pans have turned into mud holes, trapping sick and weakened animals in the sticky muck. Barry Wolhuter, who manages a Hwange safari camp called The Hide, says: "[The] national parks [department] just doesn't have its act together."

The neglect means more misery for Zimbabwe's human population, too. Hwange National Park was once a major employer in a country that attracted about 1 million visitors a year. But that was before President Robert Mugabe began forcibly expropriating thousands of white-owned farms, replacing their owners with cronies and Zimbabwean civil-war veterans. The radical land-redistribution program destroyed Zimbabwe's agricultural base, scared off tourists and sent the economy into free fall. Gross domestic product has declined from $8.4 billion to$4.3 billion in seven years; farm output has dropped by 80 percent. The annual inflation rate rose last month above 400 percent, and life expectancy has fallen to 33 years. Hwange's tourist revenues, meanwhile, have plunged from a high of $18 million a decade ago to about $2 million last year, according to conservationists. Most of the park's lodges and safari camps have closed.

Mugabe was that Zimbabwe's troubles have been caused by drought -and by a U.S.- and British-led campaign of targeted sanctions against high-level members of his regime. That has fueled a growing diplomatic row. The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, recently dispensed with diplomatic niceties and blamed the crisis on "gross mismanagement of the economy and corrupt rule." Mugabe, who recently compared George w. Bush and Tony Blair to Hitler and Mussolini, shot back: "Tell him that I can't even spell Dell. But I can spell H-E-L-L, and he might be there one of these days."

Zimbabwe's wildlife is already there. Hwange National Park, carved out of arid bush in the 1920s, is an artificial ecosystem whose animals depend on 56 boreholes, or wells, to pump groundwater from hundreds of feet below the surface into man-made ponds and concrete troughs. Over the years, this tinkering with nature has encouraged the growth of large herds of elephants -the number is believed to be between 30,000 and 40,000 in Hwange- as well as other wildlife concentrations that cannot be sustained without constant monitoring and cafe. Although the park perimeter isn't fenced, the human population at the edge of Hwange has grown rapidly, cutting off the animals' traditional migration routes to the Zambezi River and the swamps of Botswana. In effect, Hwange's wildlife is imprisoned inside the park.

Hwange needs about 2,000 gallons of diesel per month to keep all its pumps operating during the dry season, and 1,000 gallons to supply its anti-poaching patrols, according to Johnny Rodrigues, who heads a private agency called the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. But according to pump operators, the last time the Parks and Wildlife Authority delivered fuel was four months ago. In October the pumps began breaking. And the rains, which normally begin to fall on or around Oct. 15, didn't come. "The elephants drink 50 gallons of water a day. That doesn't leave anything for the other animals. It has become survival of the fittest," says one park ranger who didn't want his name used for fear of losing his job.

Environmentalists say that poaching inside the park is also worsening. Hungry Zimbabweans are killing increasing numbers of impala and kudu for meat. Unscrupulous safari operators reportedly shoot elephants, buffalo and other big game on the park's edges, then drag them into the hunting concessions that border the national reserve to make it appear that the animals were hunted legally. Zimbabwe's wildlife-management program was once considered among the best-equipped and well run in Africa. But that was a decade ago. Today, the anti-poaching patrols scattered across Hwange lack tents, uniforms, radios and reliable supplies of food.

A few private safari operators and conservationists are trying to keep the park staff on their feet. Rodrigues, 56, a war veteran who battled Mugabe's guerrillas in the 1970s, has recently supplied Hwange with 4,000 gallons of diesel, eight new pump engines, 40 new tires for rangers' vehicles and dozens of spare parts to keep aging fuel pumps running. He brings the supplies from Johannesburg, a grueling two-day trip over decaying roads. "If I could get $50,000, I could solve all the problems in this place:' Rodrigues says. That's an exaggeration. But by investing more in wildlife, Zimbabwe's government could help its people to thrive, too.

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