BY TATIRA ZWINOIRA
WITHIN seconds of driving into Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir property, several men surrounded the vehicle like locusts swarming summer crops, clad in uniforms that appeared to be from the butchery.
Strangely, however, these uniforms did not have the usual gore associated with someone who works in the meat business.
On that afternoon, on July 13, 2022 activity at Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir, one of the largest in Zimbabwe, located some 13 kilometres outside Harare’s central business district, was semi-busy.
The offices and butchery of Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir are about 200 metres away from the gate. So, with the traffic on the day, effort and care had to be taken to navigate through people and vehicles getting in.
The men did not even wait for the engine to turn off as I pulled off the driveway to the right side, some few metres from the gate.
As I was parking the car, the men had nearly surrounded the vehicle shouting out their deals like hungry lions hoping that I would bite.
After turning off the engine, I rolled down the window and asked, posing as a potential client.
“Sorry, I am looking for game meat?”
At that, the men scattered with only one remaining, Tino, as he identified himself.
He was a chubby man of medium height with medium to dark skin.
He had a face of someone who had been involved in a few scraps before.
“Which meat do you want? I have 5kg buffalo and kudu (antelope) going for US$20 each,” he said.
As he spoke, he signaled a colleague not too far off to quickly came over. The man rushed over holding a closed bucket.
Once he got there, he opened the lid to reveal strange looking meat in see-through plastic bags.
Acting interested at this sight, I asked:
“Can I not buy a kg?”
“No,” Tino replied, before ushering his colleague to close the bucket and dismissing him, before Tino quickly followed, apparently no longer interested in selling to me.
Earlier on, at a butchery in the town, Chitungwiza, in the Harare Metropolitan Province called Problican Quality Meat, they were selling crocodile meat at US$3 a kilogramme.
And despite having all the paperwork displayed on the wall showing themselves to be a certified butchery, there was no letter from Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) authorizing the sale of the meat. Later independent checks failed to determine whether the butchery had the necessary paperwork from ZimParks or not as of writing this.
Be that as it may, with the discovery of crocodile meat being sold, being at Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir, I thought, would expose another butchery selling illegal game meat.
After Tino left, I reversed back into the busy Seke Road to go back to work, in the industrial suburb of Graniteside.
Later, I called Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir financial officer, Washington Kahari, to ask why the company had workers selling meat at the gate.
Kahari responded by offering an interview for the next day, instead.
It took a few minutes after I arrived at Kahari’s office, two hours before midday, for him to tell me the real story.
“They do not belong to us, we do not have any meat that is sold outside our butcheries,” Kahari said.
This was corroborated by several letters of correspondence between the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and the butchery.
“Fines and arrests don’t seem to deter them. So, it seems that all hope is lost,” Kahari said.
“We have a licence to sell game meat but we are not selling game meat. I believe they are buying the meat maybe from rural areas which in my books could be stolen meat…What those guys do is sell game meat on top then sell common meats at the bottom because I doubt, they have steady access to game meat.”
Basically, from the ‘five kilogrames’ of buffalo or antelope meat, there is actually one kilogramme of each.
Interestingly, Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir’s location is nearly 17 kilometres away from Mbizi Game Park where wildlife animals such as the giraffe, zebra, warthog, and various antelopes roam free.
“Yes, we have had reports of a few animals going missing from Mbizi Game Park but not a lot,” ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo told the paper.
This is part of a growing trend in Harare…
While alarming, the brazen sales of wildlife meat at the Koala Park Butchery & Abattoir is no coincidence but rather a trend, according to the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA).
CHRA is an umbrella organization for citizens associations in Zimbabwe’s capital.
“The current economic challenges which have seen some families living with less than US$1 budget per day has seen people resorting to game meat as an alternative,” CHRA acting director Reuben Akili said.
“The animals are even hunted by illegal hunters and this is worrying. On the contrary restaurants from leafy suburbs has resorted to game meat as special cuisines fetching better and lucrative prices.”
In fact, it is now a common sight on farms and plots just on the outskirts of Harare to have small hunting parties of adults, teenagers and sometimes children, moving with sticks and slingshots.
Moving alongside them, will be several mixed breed dogs as the hunting party searches for squirrels and wild rabbits in the bushes.
Akili confirmed the practice.
While this is becoming commonplace in Zimbabwe’s capital, in the Matabeleland North Province, northwest of Zimbabwe, home to the country’s largest wildlife park, the Hwange National Park, the practice is more rampant.
Located in the Matabeleland North Province is the Gwai River.
It is one of the largest rivers in Zimbabwe, originating from Matopos district of Matabeleland South Province, spanning through the North’s Tsholotsho, Gwai, Lupane, Hwange National Park and Kamativi districts into the Zambezi River.
Along this river lies various farms which draws from the river that has various game that can be viewed.
During a visit to the Hwange National Park, in May, a nearby small shopping centre called ‘Gwai Shops’ is seemingly deserted during the day.
The small supermarket, parsley busy, typically has several parked vehicles including commuter buses, unlicensed private cars operating as taxis and trucks.
But, when the sun goes down, poachers emerge at the Gwayi Shops in the dead of the night selling antelope and buffalo meat that costs US$3 a kilogramme.
“They approach with a certain veracity hoping to sell. If you don’t buy, they offer biltong of wild meat where a bundle can cost US$1 of mostly antelope meat,” a ZimParks official, who did not want to be named, said.
“It is something that we are currently investigating and should be making raids soon.”
This is happening despite the creation of the Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) programme by ZimParks that was first conceived in 1982.
CAMPFIRE focuses on the utilisation of natural resources and wildlife for the benefit of the community towards infrastructure development, jobs and housing support, among other social amenities.
“Unfortunately, the community isn’t realising much in terms of revenue generated from CAMPFIRE and therefore instead of them being the protectors of wildlife in Hwange, some of them are now resorting to poaching,” Hwange Residents Association (HRA) coordinator, Fidelis Chima told the paper.
HRA is the largest resident organisation in Hwange.
“Some of them are even abetting poachers who do not even reside in Hwange. So, I think maybe the best thing that should happen is that the communities should at least have a sense of the value of wildlife which they interact with every day,” Chima continued.
“We always get reports of poaching and in any case, we reside in Hwange. We always see them, it’s not like we have to wait to see them. We see these poachers everyday and don’t have to wait to see them selling game meat. It is happening on a very large scale.”
He said the rising cost of living as a result of a depreciating local currency, that is depreciating monthly wages, has contributed significantly to communities turning to either selling bush meat illegally or buying it from poachers.
This has largely been blamed on COVID-19 shocks that greatly reduced tourism activities at the Hwange National Park leaving little funding for CAMPFIRE, leaving beneficiaries unsupported.
“When people kill elephants, they will always be after ivory. But, at times, they also sell elephants for meat alongside impala (medium-sized antelope) meat, and those are the most sold,” Chima said.
“Actually, elephant meat is now the one on demand compared to the rest. They usually sell it dry and sell it in bundles of US$1.”
He said sometimes they have even received reports of donkeys and even baboons being sold, as desperation over economic fortunes persist.
Nearly, 119 kilometres from the Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s busiest tourism town, Victoria Falls.
Since the advent of COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 that resulted in not only local but international travel restrictions as well, the town has seen a record decline in tourism activities.
While this has seen some improvements since the start of the year as economies begin to open up, the recovery has been slow.
What this period meant for Victoria Falls, however, is that a lot of people were out of a job, and struggling to make ends meet, hence, many increasingly turning to bush meat for business or consumption.
This was confirmed by the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT), a group dedicated to conserving wildlife noted an increase in bush traps during the 2020 to 2021 period.
“You definitely get this correlation with economic decline. Like in 2008, when we had the crash of the Zimbabwe dollar and now with COVID-19. There is an economic decline in Victoria Falls because there are no tourists, there is no money,” VFWT wildlife and research manager Roger Parry said in an interview.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs so yeah absolutely we have seen an increase (in villagers hunting for animals for food). Human communities during these economic decline turns to these natural resources. Going out poaching and putting out snares. Snaring targets is not animal specific but they are meant for herbivore animals like buffalo, kudo and imphala.”
He said the danger of these snares is that they have even killed carnivores like lions and hyenas.
“We lost seven lions last year to these snares,” Parry said.
Victoria Falls, like the Hwange National Park, is home to several wildlife creatures including the elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and white rhino otherwise known as the big five.
Other animals include eland (cow-like large antelope), sable antelope, zebra, giraffe, waterbuck, and kudu among other smaller species.
Why is this happening?
Ever since the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar in June 2019, the economy has become hyperinflationary.
This is because the local currency was reintroduced after being abandoned at the beginning of 2009, with no adequate forex, commodity or market confidence support.
Also, several years of anti-investor policy making, rising public debt and increasingly volatile agricultural output owing to climate change, stalled economic growth.
As a result, with no commensurate economic growth, the Zimbabwe dollar is depreciating leading to the consumer buying power being greatly eroded.
Something the continues to do so daily.
With this erosion, the price of basic commodities has risen leading to high cost of living that also includes foodstuffs.
Part of this price increases includes basic commodities such as meat.
Currently, beef prices average between US$5 and US$11 per kilogramme, pork US$5 to US$8, fish US$7 (bream) and chicken US$5.
However, the unofficial cost of living is much higher.
Hence, people are turning to bush meat.
What are the officials saying?
Zimparks director general Fulton Mangwanya said Zimbabweans have always been hunting game meat since time immemorial.
“You know, this is poaching for the pot, not poaching rhinos, not poaching elephants, not poaching leopards, but poaching for the pot. It is something that we say has been happening and continues too,” Mangwanya said.
“This is the reason why we want resources to do awareness campaigns so that people appreciate the value of these animals whilst their alive as opposed to when they are in the pot. No one applies to hunt game meat but what we know is that when hunters go on the ground and kill an animal, they dispose the meat in any way and this is the meat that finds its way to the communities and other people.”
He continued: “Because, hunters are mainly interested in the trophies and not the meat. During the hunting season, maybe around April to around December, that is when they can actually benefit a lot when a lot of meat can be sold.”
In 2022, ZimParks expected revenues of US$22,8 million, but a slow recovery to the tourism sector forced them to revise the figures downward to US$16 million, against expenses of US$14,38 million.
In 2021, revenues and expenses were US$14,1 million and US$16,91 million, respectively.
In 2020, ZimParks experienced revenues of US$10,42 million against expenses of US$13,71 million for another deficit of US$3,28 million.
The last time the company had a big surplus was pre COVID-19, in 2019, when the company recorded revenues of US$12,01 million against expenses of about US$8 million giving a surplus of just over US$4 million
Mangwanya admitted that the increase in the cost of living and lack of resources to defend wildlife have also contributed to the increase in people looking for bush meat, by any means necessary.
“It’s no secret that the economy is experiencing headwinds,” he said.
Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry deputy minister, Barbara Rwodzi also linked the rise in poaching to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), before the global spread of COVID-19, in 2019, tourism receipts were US$1,24 billion and after the pandemic spread globally the following year, the southern African nation earned US$359 million.
Last year, tourism receipts only rebounded to US$397 million, an 11% uptick from 2020 as recovery from the pandemic continues, according to the ZTA.
And since ZimParks relies on tourism receipts, with no support from Treasury, the authority has been left struggling.
“COVID-19 made work so difficult to be out there and of course poachers took advantage in doing business. And we are saying let us come together in one voice in finding ways to reduce poaching,” Rwodzi said.
“Poaching is really rampant now.”
She said it was important to deal with poaching on a regionally level now, not just on a national stage, to address the problem.