Friday, June 29, 2007

Zambia wildlife officers plunder the birthright of the rural poor...I.P.A. Manning

At midday on the 24th June 2007, a few of my employees and I – accompanied by and old friend from pre UDI Rhodesia days, cut human tracks in the bed of the Ilinda stream which lies within a wonderful piece of old Africa, the West Petauke Game Management Area of Zambia,.

Looking south, I saw a wisp of blue smoke rising up in front of a small thicket; then turning north, I found myself staring at a man armed with a military weapon standing a hundred yards away, a lean and sallow complexioned man dressed in the familiar shirt worn by government Wildlife Police Officers. Unhurriedly he moved out of sight. I immediately sent two trackers after the man, unaware that they had seen a second man, similarly armed, running away, and then walked towards the smoke where lay a newly dismembered impala ram and other meat being smoked over a fire and boiling away in two pots, and the boots and the familiar apparel of Zambia Wildlife Authority employees scattered about, the organization having the mandate and duty to protect Zambia’s wildlife. Ten minutes later my people escorted the officer in charge of the Kalansha Wildlife Camp, one Joseph Mbo, into my presence. His story was familiar: they had come on poachers with newly killed animals, had fired a few shots in the air while giving chase, and had then started to prepare the meat so that it could be collected for consumption by the painfully poor villagers. A perfect alibi, naturally, but one in which the absence of a bullet would make it well nigh impossible to prosecute the gang in court. Without being pressed, Mbo happily divulged the names of his group: Daniel Daka and Fraxon Phiri from Nyimba, and Axon Phiri and Josephat Walya hailing from Kalansha game camp.

Mbo, in calm and unhurried fashion, said that they had come on the poachers the previous day. The impala ram however, had been killed but a few hours before, fresh blood still mantling the leaves where it lay. Disarming Mbo, I gave orders for the camp to be packed up and loaded on my car, drove to my camp on the Luangwa river, and the following morning then drove sixty kilometers to the little town of Nyimba lying on the Great East Road. Some half way along this track we were hailed down by none other than the ZAWA sector i/c based in Nyimba, Collins Chibeka, a name familiar to us in our ongoing investigations into the elephant and meat poaching syndicate laying waste the district. Loading him and his bark wrapped bundle of fish or meat, perhaps both, we drove to the Nyimba Police Station. There CID spent a number of hours interrogating us and Mbo, declaring that our chances of putting the gang in jail were slim. My newly qualified public prosecutor, Japhat, agreed. I tried to remember where I had read that on occasion the weight of circumstantial evidence could far outweigh direct evidence. Outside I found Chibeka, his bundle of meat already spirited away. Despondent, I drove back to the Luangwa with Mbo and my main witness, Sylvester, heading directly to the Ndevu Wildlife Camp where Mbo said we would find the other officers who had accompanied him under his command. There we found Phiri and Walya, the former a village scout employed by the Luembe Community Resource Board, the man who had run away, and Walya – he being the man who had left his trousers hanging on the tree in the poaching camp. I then dropped them off part way towards my own camp, discovering later that they had left two AK 47s in the car.

The following day I met with the Chairman of the Luembe CRB, Axon Lungu, a fellow trustee of our Luembe Conservancy Trust, and we agreed that none of the gang should be allowed to continue in their posts. And talking to other community leaders, I sense the immergence of new strength and determination to root out those who masquerade as protectors.