During his nearly four-decade reign, Robert Mugabe steered Zimbabwe into a pattern of entrenched criminal and corrupt practices originating from the top. This deeply rooted corruption saw the Mugabe regime regularly profiteering from the nation’s rich natural resources, including its wildlife. The ability to directly plunder valuable natural resources and quickly sell them to foreign black-market actors was a bush militia fundraising technique which Mugabe and his associates continued for private gain once in power.

Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) ruling cadre, particularly military and intelligence officers affiliated with the party, are believed to have directly profited from the illicit wildlife trade since the 1980s. Zimbabwe’s strong ties to China, a major illicit wildlife products consumer, has cemented the prevalence of this lucrative form of crime.

As of late November 2017, the political situation in Zimbabwe is in flux. On November 24th, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as interim President. Mnangagwa (75), a senior ZANU-PF official, who served as Vice President until early November, and previously served as Minister of Justice, Minister of Defence, and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) chief, has been institutionally and personally linked to wildlife poaching and trafficking in the past. It has been assessed that a transfer of power from Mugabe to Mnangagwa, or to any other member of the extant ZANU-PF ruling elite, is unlikely to lead to any decrease in Zimbabwe’s thriving illicit wildlife trade.

Key Points

  • Corruption in Zimbabwe has become a widespread issue under former President Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule, and has allowed the ruling ZANU-PF party to profit from the illicit wildlife trade since the 1980s.
  • Nevertheless, it is China’s increased involvement and presence in the country that has allowed Zimbabwe’s black market for illicit environmental products to considerably expand – with Chinese expats often acting as middlemen on the wildlife black market, and linking the country to the south east Asian market.
  • Furthermore, despite the resignation of Mugabe and the subsequent appointment of Mnangagwa as President, Mnangagwa’s alleged links to wildlife smuggling organisations means that, all in all, the poaching and trafficking of wildlife in Zimbabwe is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Instead, it is likely to remain closely connected to the activities of any new ZANU-PF government.

China’s Role in the Wildlife Black Market
Beginning during the post-independence turmoil of the 1980s, and accelerating particularly since around 2000, China has long been a crucial source of military aid and financial support for Zimbabwe. With Zimbabwe’s growing dependence on Chinese investment, loans, and infrastructure projects, has come a vastly increased, and domestically controversial, Chinese presence in Zimbabwe. Some analysts have noted the extreme extent of the country’s indebtedness to the Chinese, warning of the danger of China’s takeover of a number of strategic state-owned enterprises.

It has also been chiefly the Chinese who have introduced another type of risk to the Zimbabwean economy: a sizeable black market for commercial quantities of ivory, rhino horn, and other illicit environmental products. The Chinese footprint inside Zimbabwe, combined with the Mugabe regime’s kleptocratic attitude toward natural resources and overall level of corruption, and acute historical and political sensitivities surrounding the control of land (including game reserves) in rural areas where wildlife is present, has long created perfect conditions for poaching and trafficking. Chinese expats moonlight with impunity as middlemen on the wildlife black market, with their primary occupations in mining or other industries (The Times, 26.12.2016). Organised crime groups from China, Russia, and South Africa are also involved in poaching and trafficking networks.
The main consumers of these products are in China, Vietnam, and Thailand; smaller markets also exist in Malaysia, Myanmar, Taiwan, and the United States. In 2015, the United Nations cited wildlife poaching and trafficking as “among the five most lucrative illegal trades globally, worth an estimated 23 billion USD annually” (UN Press Release, 02.03.2016) .

Solid estimates of how many animals or animal parts from Zimbabwe are liquidated annually on the black and grey markets are difficult to come by, in part because of the Mugabe regime’s opacity regarding the relevant wildlife population figures. Elephants are thought to be disappearing from Zimbabwe at a rate of between several hundred to a thousand per year, and rhinos – mostly black rhino, a critically endangered species– at a rate of dozens to hundreds per year. Elephant poaching continues apace in 2017, with some elephants being killed via the placement of cyanide in wildlife water sources, a tactic which also ends up killing large numbers of other animals. There are many other species also being poached and trafficked out of Zimbabwe either alive or dead, including pangolin, lion, and endangered birds.

ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa Implicated
The full details of Zimbabwean governmental involvement in wildlife poaching and trafficking remain largely unknown. But ivory poaching in particular – which takes place mainly along Zimbabwe’s southern border with South Africa, particularly in the Gonarezhou National Park – has since the 1980s been strongly associated with ZANU-PF-backed military and security forces.  
Isolated examples, from the past several years, of public claims of links between government personnel and poaching include the following:

  • ZANU-PF party members were implicated in the 2010 ‘Musina mafia’ case of a South African hunting outfit fronting for a large cross-border ivory network.
  • In 2012, Mugabe gave ZANU-PF allies, senior military officers among them, leases and hunting permits inside the famed Save Valley Conservancy; soon after, Save was reported to have lost half of its entire wildlife population.
  • In 2013, the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) claimed that ZANU-PF was behind recent cyanide poisonings (for poaching) of elephants.
  • In 2015, police officials were accused of involvement with poaching in Hwange National Park.

CIO personnel have been widely accused in recent years of involvement in poaching, including through poaching themselves or, more frequently, providing weapons to poachers or serving as initial buyers (African Arguments, 04.08.2016).

As former defence chief, CIO head, and justice minister, Mnangagwa is institutionally complicit with past poaching and trafficking done by military, CIO, or police. Mnangagwa was also personally implicated in a 2009 case connecting him and a ZANU-PF associate, then-Minister of Information and Publicity Webster Shamu, in a rhino horn ring involving local Chinese expats. Mnangagwa and Shamu “escaped prosecution … after the police docket against the two mysteriously disappeared” leading some to suspect a “massive official cover up” (Africa News Service, 23.07.2009).

Mnangagwa is also allegedly an associate of Zimbabwean businessman John Bredenkamp, owner of Thetford Estate, a conservancy mentioned in press reports in 2013 as possibly allowing ZANU-PF-controlled poaching to take place (Africa News Service, 05.01.20130.

For Zimbabwe’s Wildlife: Plus ça change …
With Interim President Mnangagwa at the helm, and poised to win the next elections in 2018, the illegal trade in wildlife and derivative products in Zimbabwe is unlikely to shrink.

Mnangagwa, like Mugabe, is supported by the Chinese. China’s expat and business footprint on the ground in Zimbabwe will likely continue to grow, and with it the market for illicit wildlife products.

Grey market wildlife trade between the two countries will also likely continue, in the same vein as, for example, China’s past receipt of two nominally legal ‘one-time’ ivory shipments out of Zimbabwe’s stockpile as payment for weapons, in 2000 and 2008; its recent acceptance of live wildlife as settlement for another military debt; or its also recent (and again nominally legal, but quite controversial) purchase of hundreds of live wild animals – lions and elephant calves – from Zimbabwe for transport to a Chinese safari park.

Chinese premier Xi Jingping has recently made public noises about committing to ending China’s outsized role in fostering the thriving black market in wildlife products in southern Africa. China committed anti-poaching funds and materiel to Zimbabwe in late 2015, and a wildlife protection agreement was among a raft of U.S. $6 billions’ worth of Sino-Zim bilateral agreements and contracts Mugabe and Xi signed in 2015.

Yet there remain serious doubts as to China’s willingness, or even real ability, to crack down on powerful trafficking cartels in China, or even to end its legal domestic ivory market as it has pledged to the international community it will do beginning in 2018. Controlling Chinese middlemen based in Zimbabwe, whether they are freelancers or part of larger networks, could pose an even greater challenge, particularly if the Zimbabwean elite expresses an interest in letting the trade continue.

China clearly holds most of the cards in terms of foreign influence over the ZANU-PF ruling elite. If China were serious about helping Zimbabwe halt poaching and trafficking, it could potentially have great impact. But China would have to go further than widely publicized good intentions, and even further than the already unlikely scenario of drastically cracking down on Chinese demand. China would have to use its privileged position vis-à-vis the Zimbabwean government to place pressure on the ruling elite to end its long-entrenched willingness to tolerate and participate in poaching and trafficking. This would be difficult and slow, but could, over time, constitute one step toward permanently shrinking the local and regional wildlife black market.  

Given all of the above, the international community should keep in view the real likelihood that poaching and trafficking will outlast Mugabe’s reign, remaining closely intertwined with any new ZANU-PF government under Mnangagwa. Whether this illicit trade continues unabated will be one important sign of whether Mnangagwa is able to usher in better governance in Zimbabwe, and whether sound investment opportunities may reappear in this beleaguered nation.