ANTI-poaching expert Rory Young was delighted when he got permission to train Zimbabwean police to fight ivory poachers.
But then president Robert Mugabe’s intelligence operatives got involved and hounded him out of the country.
Now Mr Young believes that some of the operatives are involved in Zimbabwe’s poaching crisis and that fear of the secret police is contributing to a “politics of harassment” of wildlife workers.
Mr Young, 43, moved back to Zimbabwe last year, having grown up there. He had authorisation from the police to train rangers in parts of the country worst-hit by poaching.
His track record was clear – experience with the UN and hugely-successful training operations in Guinea, Malawi and other countries in central and eastern Africa.
Mr Young combined expert tracking techniques with learning how to penetrate local poaching networks. Last month Mr Young and rangers he was training in Malawi arrested 81 poachers in 12 days.
“You couldn’t keep up with the arrests,” he said. Zimbabwe police were “over the moon” with his training manuals, just as they had been with a previous course he had run for them and scouts from Nyaminyami, north-western Zimbabwe. As a matter of courtesy, he gave a manual to the president’s office, code for the much-feared secret police. Then he headed to the town of Kariba to start training.
That was when the trouble began.
About ten months ago, Mr Young was summoned to a meeting in the tourist town. Elephant numbers in this area have dropped dramatically. A count last year suggested that the population in Matusadonha and Chizarira areas had fallen by 75 per cent since 2001, mostly due to poaching.
The officials in the president’s office were abrasive.
“I was told not to train anyone,” he said. “They said that they had informants who would tell me if I did any training and they’d find an excuse to arrest me even if I’d done nothing wrong.”
Mr Young was suspicious. “I understand the effectiveness of intelligence-driven law enforcement. And with the network they have (estimates a few years ago put the number of locals “informing” at one in six) they should know exactly how poaching is taking place.
“They should be able to shut it down. They don’t want to win.” He decided to stop all work in Zimbabwe and use it as a base for regional operations.
The threats did not stop. “Every time I came back, I’d get people saying: ‘They were asking questions. Where was I? Where did I live?’”
There were more ‘passed-on’ threats of arrest, a claim he was training “rebels.” Young worried that he’d be detained at the airport. He was already spending most of his time outside Zimbabwe. Eventually he got his family out too.
His allegations that regime officials are “complicit” in poaching are not new. Last year a report commissioned by conservation group Born Free USA said that hunting and poaching were “a means for Zanu-PF elites to earn scarce foreign currency and circumvent Western sanctions”.