Gonarezhou National Park meets poaching threat head-on

Though Gonarezhou’s elephant population is still doing well, management is tackling the potential threat of poaching head on. The budding ranger corps is growing and growing; rising stronger every day to the challenge of protecting Zimbabwe’s iconic wildlife.

Already, over half of neighbouring Mozambique’s elephant population has been lost in the past five year.  Furthermore, the 2014 Pan-African elephant survey revealed a 40% and 70% reduction in elephant numbers in the Mana Pools and Sebungwe Areas of Zimbabwe. Yet, the Gonarezhou National Park (GNP) has shown a 130% rise in elephant numbers during the same period.

Unfortunately, poachers seem to be turning their gaze to this protected area. In 2015 more poached elephants were encountered than ever before, though management cautions that this rise can be partly attributed to increased patrols by more rangers, who are better skilled than ever.

The potential threat is not being taken lightly. Patrol strategies are constantly being adapted and the Mozambique Border Unit was deployed in December 2014, operating from two permanent bases close to the border. The following year saw the implementation of a deployment system which allows for the entire western boundary to be patrolled on a daily basis by dedicated Fence Units on foot and on bicycle. They are now also able to operate from ranger pickets that have been constructed over the last two years. A Quick-Reaction Unit has also been formed, and was assigned a dedicated vehicle. They are now able to support the units on the park boundaries.

Much effort has also been spent on ranger recruitment and training. Out of 200 prospective applicants, 22 students from five communities surrounding the park completed a training course at the dedicated training camp established in the centre of the park in 2015. They are reported to be of the best calibre yet, which was proven when they arrested eight poachers and recovered 15 pieces of ivory as well as snares, skins and dried meat while on patrol exercises during the course. The total number of cadets employed now stands at 62.

Further strength is being lent to the cadets by a newly established canine unit. With support from the Save the Elephants’ Crisis Fund (and training by Invictus K9), two canines from proven blood-lines were hand-picked from a specialist breeder in Europe and shipped to Gonarezhou in July 2015. They will primarily be used to track poacher spoor in the field. The elongated shape of Gonarezhou means that virtually at all times one is within 20 to 30 km from one of the boundaries at all times, making it easy for poachers to exit before the rangers can reach them.

The conditions in Gonarezhou –with regards to terrain, distances and temperatures are all very challenging, and the next few months will tell whether the canine unit will be able to impact significantly on law enforcement success in the park. In order to maximise that probability, two months of follow-up and advanced training will be conducted in 2016.

The routine support of the Gonarezhou Conservation Project (GCP) to law enforcement patrols continued throughout 2015, with timely supply of fuel and rations for patrol deployments, vehicle maintenance and aerial support and surveillance.

With the support of the International Rhino Foundation, a third repeater station and antenna was purchased, and a mast has been constructed. This will consolidate park-wide digital radio communication.