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International spotlight: Zimbabwe rhino poaching court case a turning point?

Conservationists concerned with inconsistent sentencing of poachers!

Zimbabwe – This month, Tichaona Mutyairi, a Zimbabwe rhino poacher with the infamous Mazhongwe gang, was sentenced to 17 years in jail after being captured during an exchange of gunfire with the police in October 2009. Although a regional court in the town of Masvingo took a strict stance, punishing the poacher to the full extent of Zimbabwe’s wildlife and firearm laws, this sentence remains a rare occurrence among captured poachers.

Sassy: This calf, called “Sassy”, was orphaned when her mother was killed by poachers. She is now being raised by the Lowveld Rhino Trust

International conservationists are watching the Mutyairi case given the highly varied outcomes in several court cases against members of rhino poaching gangs that have recently been finalized or are still underway.

In previous court cases, many poachers have been released from jail escaping punishment instead of facing strong, consistent sentences that would deter them from hunting down Zimbabwe’s remaining rhinos.

Carla with Mother’s Carcass: After “Carla’s” mother was killed by poachers, she stayed with the body for several days, still trying unsuccessfully to nurse. Carla was rescued by the Lowveld Rhino Trust and treated for her injuries.

“After so much conservation effort and funding has been ploughed into rhino
protection in Zimbabwe, we look to the Zimbabwean authorities to hold up
their side of our shared commitment to conserve rhinos,” said Dr. Susie
Ellis
, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation. “If strict
sentences continue to be imposed on poachers, there may finally be a chance
that the poachers will start to back off from their all-out assault on
Zimbabwe’s remaining rhinos”.

These court rulings will be put under the international spotlight when Zimbabwe’s track record of rhino conservation is assessed at the March conference of parties to the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). By then, it may be clear if Mutyairi’s recent case is a turning point in the conservation battle or is merely false hope that Zimbabwe’s law-enforcement officers and court officials have resolved to confront the poaching menace.

These horns were removed from poached rhinos and confiscated before the poachers were able to return for them. (Poachers often shoot rhinos, wait for them to die, and then return to cut off their horns.

These horns were removed from poached rhinos and confiscated before the poachers were able to return for them. (Poachers often shoot rhinos, wait for them to die, and then return to cut off their horns.

The temptation to poach rhinos has been stimulated by weak levels of law enforcement in Zimbabwe. Since January 2008, approximately 40 rhino poachers have been arrested, often through the efforts of private rhino custodians. However, fewer than five of the arrested poachers have actually been convicted for their crimes, which include use of illegal firearms and the slaughtering of the endangered rhino species.

In one failed court case which conservationists found particularly disturbing, a Zimbabwean High Court judge granted bail to a group of poachers who were found with five automatic assault rifles and admitted to killing seventeen rhinos. This ruling overturned another ruling in a more junior court case in which captured gang members were released from jail until sentencing giving them the opportunity to immediately abscond. The same process was followed shortly afterwards in a similar case, allowing two Mazhongwe gang members to vanish into thin air instead of remaining in jail.

The Gang: Orphans “Sassy”, “Millie”, and “Blondie” all lost their mothers to poachers and were too young to survive on their own. They are now being hand-reared by the Lowveld Rhino Trust staff, and will eventually be released back into the wild.

While conservationists applaud the professional action of the Masvingo court and the police investigators who built the case against Mutyairi, they worry his lawyer will follow the route of appealing to another court. The financial power of poaching syndicates and the legal antics that have disrupted other convictions could still come into play in this process.

According to the Lowveld Rhino Trust, which monitors and manages rhinos in southern Zimbabwe, approximately 130 rhinos were poached for their horns between 2008 and 2009. The Mazhongwe poaching gang, led by brothers “Big Sam” and Ishmael, are responsible for at least a quarter of these losses. Rhinos are killed for the sole intention of selling their horns on the black market, which are used in traditional Asian medicine to reduce fever. The willingness of emboldened poachers such as the Mazhongwe gang to fire upon law enforcement patrols that interfere with their hunt in Zimbabwe has resulted in a literal war.

Calf poached: This young rhino was brutally killed by poachers for its horn.

“The illicit horn deals provide a relatively good income for opportunists
like the Mazhongwe gang trying to survive in Zimbabwe’s collapsed economy,”
said Ellis. “We are continuing our efforts to put pressure on the Zimbabwean
government to keep rhino poaching at bay. Only time will tell how the
Zimbabwean courts will handle prosecuting future rhino poachers.”

Rhino poaching remains a high-stakes, organized endeavor in Zimbabwe undertaken by everyone from government officials and foreign diplomats to gangs of violent criminals.

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About the International Rhino Foundation

The International Rhino Foundation is a global not-for-profit organization dedicated to the survival of the world’s rhino species through conservation
and research, and increasing awareness about the plight of the rhino. To learn more about the IRF or make a direct contribution, visit rhinos.org.

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