Every year, thousands of travelers from all over the world visit the Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Zimbabwe and Zambia, to watch the waters of the Zambezi River thunder into the deep Batoka Gorge, and to appreciate the abundant wildlife that roam the areas around the Falls.
But like anywhere in Africa, where wildlife and local people live in close proximity, there are poaching threats to the animals.
The Victoria Falls Anti Poaching Unit (VFAPU), based in the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, is a non-profit organization working to fight poaching in the Zambezi National Park and adjacent Victoria Falls National Park.
The unit reported capturing a total of 400 poachers in 2014, including the successful investigation and capture of a number of poachers who were involved in a terrible elephant-poisoning incident in Zambezi National Park.
“It was shocking to experience our first case of cyanide poisoning,” said VFAPU operation co-ordinator Charles Brightman, “where poachers placed poison in a mineral lick and sadly, five elephants lost their lives.”
“It’s a new method of poaching, the use of poisons rather than shooting, with the main object being to get tusks for black market sale.”
The investigation into the incident was a joint effort by the Environmental Management Authority, Zimbabwe Republic Police, National Parks and Wildlife Management, VFAPU and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, he said. The cyanide poachers were arrested and their court cases are pending.
Also arrested in 2014 were 358 wood poachers, 11 fish poachers, one thief, eight illegal miners, two bush meat dealers and five persons entering the park’s estate illegally.
A total of 158 snares was recovered from the field, a dramatic drop from the more than 4,000 found in 1999, when VFAPU was formed.
The Unit started out hiring only three scouts, and with assistance from the local hospitality group, Africa Albida Tourism, which operate lodges in Victoria Falls and Chobe, now has 17 scouts, operating seven days a week, patrolling an area approximately fifty square kilometers (19 square miles, smaller than Manhattan) surrounding Victoria Falls.
The operations are now expanding further afield, said Brightman, as the VFAPU help with manpower, logistics and equipment to assist in joint operations.
Already, in the first month of 2015, the VFAPU assisted local police and National Parks in arresting two suspected ivory dealers, who have been charged with possession of ivory with the intent to smuggle it out of the country, and are now awaiting trial in Victoria Falls.
“We are thankful for all the support in 2014,” said Brightman. “We can’t let poaching continue unabated, and we must all take a stand together.”
Follow Paul Steyn on Twitter