Fifteen thousand elephant tusks, piled so high and so deep that the smell of death still clinging to them is overwhelming. The largest are taller than the men who guard them. The heaviest tusk they’ve got weighs 64 kg and was found in the Zambezi Valley in 1984.
All in all there are about 100 tonnes of ivory sitting behind three security doors with guards and an alarm system in a building on the grounds of Zimbabwe’s National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in Harare.
Think of it as a savings account that will one day come to maturity. That’s what Zimbabwe is doing.
The government has a serious cash flow problem and wants the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to allow it to sell the tusks, which were recovered from poachers or elephants that have died of natural causes.
But according to Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri, “It has been a problem to mobilize international support.” Especially after Kenya burned its ivory stockpiles last year in a dramatic message to poachers that their bloody trade must end.
Zimbabwe says bans on ivory and rhino horn haven’t stopped the black market trade, and Muchinguri argues the millions of dollars the country would earn from selling its stockpile could go back into conservation efforts.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been in freefall for several years and the impact on its parks and wildlife has been devastating. Even being able to hire enough rangers for its national parks is a struggle.
“We bear the burden of taking care of these animals not just for Zimbabweans but beyond, for future generations,” says Muchinguri.
That Zimbabwe feels isolated and unfairly treated on the international conservation stage is not in doubt. For example, simply getting permission to film the ivory stockpile involved a full-on interrogation by officials, including a member of the Central Intelligence Office who was convinced we were there to sully the country’s reputation.
A big part of the bad press Zimbabwe is getting these days comes from its decision to continue selling wildlife to game parks and zoos abroad, in particular China.
Last December, the environment minister approved the sale of 35 elephants to Chinese buyers; the year before that, it was 24. Hyenas, giraffes, lions and baboons have also been on the sales list.
Members of the tourism industry say it sends the wrong message.
“It is terrible for a country like us that has done so much over the years to protect wildlife to then be exporting wildlife,” says Ross Kennedy, chairman of the African Travel and Tourism Association.
Kennedy says seeing the “big five” — elephants, lions, Cape Buffalo, leopards and rhinos — is one of the top three reasons people give for choosing Africa as a travel destination.
Hunting them is another. Zimbabwe, like other countries in southern Africa, argues that managed hunts can help sustain a species, by according them value seen as worth protecting by local communities.
Tourism is the second biggest industry in Zimbabwe, and Kennedy says it’s hard to overstate its importance to the economy.
“Every person employed in tourism will create another seven jobs downstream,” he says.
The number of African elephants in the wild is declining by an alarming eight per cent a year. But Zimbabwe says it has too many — an estimated 86,000 of them — and that they’ve become a burden and a nuisance to locals who live near them.
The pressure from human-wildlife conflict is real. One man living next to Hwange National Park said it sometimes feels like the government cares more for the animals than the people.
The alternative to selling elephants, says the environment minister, is to cull them. Far better, she argues, to earn some money and put it back into conservation.
But Zimbabwe is seen as so riddled with corruption and so lacking in good governance and transparency that few believe the government can be trusted to plough sales of elephants or stockpiled ivory back into the care of animals.
“That money is not going into conservation. It’s not going into anti-poaching. It’s going into certain individuals’ pockets,” says Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
Rodrigues is a controversial figure in Zimbabwe, considered by some to be too wedded to conspiracy theories. But even conservationists who criticize him say there’s usually more than a grain of truth in what he says.
The campaigner says Zimbabwe has done little to support farmers living next to wildlife by educating them about more sustainable ways to keep animals away from their goats, chickens and crops, like installing strobe lights and planting chilies around cornfields.
The animal-rights activist also questions government numbers on elephants in Zimbabwe. Many elephants from neighbouring Botswana, for instance, cross back and forth into Hwange National Park, drawn by water that is pumped year round, which muddies efforts to get an accurate count.
“There’s no way we’ve got [more than 80,000],” says Rodrigues. “We’ve got a total of around 35,000, 40,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. That’s the lot.”
Rodrigues believes officials from Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization are involved in the illegal ivory trade.
“They’re taking the ivory because they’re not getting paid well by the government, so they’ve got the green light to do whatever they want.”
We met Rodrigues the night he was packing up house to leave Zimbabwe for good. He says he’s made too many enemies for it to be safe for him to stay.
“We’ve got impala on the runway. And they’re frisky this morning.”
The message crackles through the line to the pilot as he approaches a small airstrip in the Sebungwe region of Zimbabwe. He has to buzz the herd of elegant antelope to scatter them, circling around again before making a final approach along the shore of Lake Kariba, which shares a border with Zambia.
The vegetation is lush and green, and billowing clouds hang so heavy and still over the hills that they seem a permanent part of the landscape. The elephants grazing in the distance, with their giant ears flapping, lend it a vaguely prehistoric feel.
The story of the elephant in this part of Zimbabwe is one of near decimation. Sebungwe has lost 75 per cent of its elephant population over the past decade, mainly to poachers.
The Bumi Hills Foundation is dedicated to protecting wildlife and habitat over a stretch of territory in and around Lake Kariba, and the walls of their headquarters overlooking the water are lined with the skulls and jawbones of animals killed by poachers.
Like Johnny Rodrigues, founder Nick Milne worries that government estimates on the number of elephants in Zimbabwe are too high.
“I just think that we need to look at the science behind how we look at numbers first before we start making assumptions that there’s too many animals,” he says. “Because it depends on the time of year, [on] a whole lot of factors. And you’ve still got a natural migration that moves.”
Bumi rangers have removed more than 17,000 snares from their patrolled area since 2009.
The snares are the most rudimentary of traps, used by small-time poachers and illegal commercial bushmeat traders. Hard to spot and effective, they’re made of strong wire, often the same kind used for bicycle brakes. They are suspended from trees and formed into a loop with a slipknot. Tension triggers the trap.
The snares can take down lions, Cape Buffalo, impala, even elephants, which are often left to endure slow, painful deaths. An estimated 90 per cent of the animals killed are never collected by poachers.
One older elephant, which the rangers call Nelly, was injured by a snare years ago and now trails the herd, dragging her foot. When she raises her trunk, you can see it is mangled — more damage done by the snare.
Most of the elephants killed have been shot. Bumi conservation manager Mark Brightman, who is qualified to dart injured or distressed animals, says poachers have become much more sophisticated.
“In recent years we’ve seen a huge rise in cyanide poisoning at watering holes, or they’ll put down coarse salt [mixed with cyanide] and the elephants will consume that very readily.”
The Bumi team hasn’t lost an elephant in 18 months in the 50-square- kilometre area they patrol. But they worry poachers are simply being pushed into other areas where there is no protection.
One of the rangers, who preferred not to give his name in order to protect his identity from criminal gangs, says one of the hardest things about his job is determining how many people are driven to poaching simply because they’re hungry.
“There’s no jobs,” he says. “Most of the industries are closed so that people are thinking of getting money the short-cut way. Killing animals.”
He doesn’t agree with government plans to sell animals to China or any other country, for that matter.
Nor does Mark Brightman, who says the impact of the loss of an elephant on a herd is profound, especially when young elephants are being taken way, as they are in Zimbabwe.
“They’ve got pretty much the same sort of emotions as we have. So if you go into an elephant herd and remove tiny baby elephants, it’s pretty much like taking a child away from its mother,” he says.
“It’s all legal. It’s all ratified by [a UN convention] and things. But personally, I’m dead against it. We shouldn’t be doing it.”