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Zimbabwe turns to wildlife as food source

President Robert Mugabe's regime has directed national parks officials to kill animals in state-owned conservation areas to feed hungry rural peasants - a move that could wipe out what remains of Zimbabwe's impalas, kudus, giraffes, elephants and other species.

The directive is a major blow to efforts by conservationists to try to rehabilitate the wildlife sector which was devastated after Mugabe ordered his supporters to invade and confiscate white-owned farms in 2000.

The chaotic farm invasions saw party militants storming into conservation areas - both private and state-owned - to slaughter animals.

Unscrupulous South African hunters also joined in the looting, paying hefty kickbacks to politicians to go into conservation areas and shoot lions, leopards and cheetahs for trophies.

But because of the general abundance of certain species of wildlife in southern Zimbabwe and the establishment of the transfrontier park, which allows animals from Mozambique and South Africa's world-famous Kruger National Park to move freely into and out of Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou (home of the elephants) National Park, there have been high hopes among conservationists that Zimbabwe's wildlife sector could be restored to its former glory.

This now appears highly unlikely as Zimbabwe's department of national parks and wildlife management, the custodian of this embattled country's wild animals, has been given the green light to work with rural district councils to kill animals to feed more than four-million hungry rural Zimbabweans.

National Parks officials said the recent shootings of 10 elephants for barbecue meat at festivities to mark Zimbabwe's 25 years of independence around the country had been carried out in the broad context of the directive to kill animals to feed the hungry, particularly those living within the vicinity of national parks.

The 10 elephants were killed by National Park rangers. Four of the giant animals were reportedly shot in full view of tourists near Zimbabwe's Lake Kariba, a major haven for wildlife.

Zimbabwean conservationists have been particularly scathing about the killings of the elephants for independence celebrations.

Rural peasants in Zimbabwe have sold or fed on their own livestock in the past three years of unprecedented hunger, induced by Mugabe's chaotic land seizures.

National Parks officials say many of the peasants living in areas bordering National Parks have already been venturing into these parks to hunt and kill animals using snares.

But they said the impact of snare hunting by the villagers was limited compared to what would happen if armed National Parks rangers were allowed to enter conservation areas to kill for meat to feed millions of hungry peasants.

"Killing of animals for any reasons other than conservation can be very disastrous," said one National Parks official.

"The politicians think we have enough animals to feed people without wiping out different species. We as professionals don't think so. We are talking to them (the politicians) and we hope we will reach consensus on protecting our wildlife heritage."

Other government officials said Mugabe was so happy about his rural constituency which ensured him a majority of seats in last month's parliamentary elections that he wanted to do everything to please the peasants.