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Zimbabwe Expert: The Truth About Killing 'Problem' Elephants
Dana Kennedy Contributor
"I've seen so many of the atrocities against elephants and other wildlife here that it sickens me to the bottom of my soul," Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told AOL News today on the telephone from Harare.
"But I have read what Parsons said, and he is totally misinformed about what is going on here. I wish he knew the truth."
Parsons, whose video sparked outrage when it circulated Thursday, is shown shooting a bull elephant on a recent hunting trip in Zimbabwe and then posing triumphantly next to the carcass. He called the animal a "problem elephant" that was in a herd attacking local crops and houses.
Some villagers, sporting GoDaddy caps, are also shown in the video carving up the dead elephant and eating the meat, as AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" plays on the soundtrack.
Parsons brushed off criticism in interviews and said that only a few animal rights groups like PETA were upset.
The villagers "are on the brink of starvation," he told CBS News. "They need their crops and need to eat. Elephants are not endangered and probably there are too many of them. A lot of people are up in arms about this. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don't understand the situation. If they'd go on one of my trips to Zimbabwe, they'd understand."
But Rodrigues, who grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, said hunters like Parsons don't understand the level of government corruption in the country, how it's led to the collapse of the economy and how it's affected the wildlife.
AOL News spoke with Rodrigues about the plight of elephants in a country that was once a top destination for tourists who could enjoy wildlife protected by strong environmental policies -- but has deteriorated under an increasingly lawless regime.
AOL News: Bob Parsons said killing the elephant was justified because there are too many of them in Zimbabwe and they're attacking farmers and their crops who have no way of getting rid of them. True?
Johnny Rodrigues: No. For one thing, the government deliberately inflates the number of elephants so they can allot a certain number to be killed. Last year they said 500 elephants could be killed. They say there are 100,000 elephants. From what I have found, the figure is more like between 30,000 and 35,000. They lie about the number so they can allow hunters to kill them. They use the income generated to pay the wages to the park staffers and to keep the parks running because they have no money. The villagers don't see a penny. [Park authorities] just sell them the meat.
Illegal poaching occurs all over Africa. How is the situation different in Zimbabwe?
The problem in Zimbabwe is the guardians of the wildlife are the perpetrators. We're the only country in Africa that shoots game to pay wages to national park guardians and ration meat to their staff. It's sick. You wouldn't tolerate it. Zimbabwe is the only country where some of the park guardians are politically connected and don't care about the animals. They're the ones benefiting economically from their killing, even though they are the ones who are supposed to protect them.
Are elephants actually killed in the national parks?
They are not supposed to be, but they are. The government uses claims that elephants are destroying crops and attacking villagers to allow them to be hunted in national parks and safari areas.
Why are the elephants coming into villages and threatening the farmers?
Elephants are the most traumatized animals in Zimbabwe. They are being shot even in supposedly safe areas. Elephants travel in family units, and when one of their loved ones are shot and killed, the rest of the family remembers and they are traumatized and they will attack. They are very intelligent animals with phenomenal memories. When they see humans now, they remember.
What do they remember?
They remember it is humans who have caused all their stress, who have taken away their family members. They either attack or run away when they see a vehicle. It's very sad because we could co-exist. But humans, especially in Africa, are encroaching on land reserved for the animals, and the animals are running out of land.
What would you say to Bob Parsons if you could speak to him?
I would tell him he is supporting a terrible system that is not helping the poor people on the ground. Coming here with all his wealth for these unethical hunts and killing elephants is not helping anyone. It's perpetuating a horrible cycle in this country of traumatized animals and desperate people. And by telling them to eat meat the way he did and giving them his caps is like treating them like slaves.
What would you tell him about the bull elephant he killed, based on what you know about them?
Elephants are all part of families. The bull elephant Parsons killed has a family. It's the same as a robber coming into Parsons' house and shooting him in front of one of his kids. Parsons should look at some of the incredible research on elephants and elephant family behavior. He'd be shocked. Elephants are among the smartest, most sensitive animals alive.
How many elephants were there, say 100 years ago in Zimbabwe. Do you even know?
There were at least 700,000 to 800,000, but there's no comparison to today. They roamed all over. Man has totally encroached on their territory.
Can you report illegal poaching crimes to officials in Zimbabwe?
You will see some illegal poaching in Zambia, say, but it is a country with law and order. The authorities will do something about it. Here when you bring in a dossier of documents about illegal poaching to the attorney general, nothing happens. Even if you get to see a police investigator once, you'll never see them again. They disappear. It's what happens when there is no democracy and a breakdown of law and order.
People get killed in Zimbabwe for speaking out. Why do you take the risk?
It's very dangerous, but I've been exposing what's going on in this country for 12 years. I have death threats and attempts on my life. Strange things happen here to people like me.
What kind of strange things?
People coming around, beatings, being locked up, disappearing for a few months. But somebody has to speak out. I fought for this country in the war, so I feel I have a right to be a voice for the voiceless. I am trying to preserve our wonderful wildlife in this beautiful country. That's more important than anything that happens to me.
Have international wildlife groups reached out to Zimbabwe?
Unfortunately not really. The political situation is so difficult that it keeps people away.
What about those who believe that man comes first and while it's unfortunate that animals suffer, we are more important and this is a bit of a non-issue?
Preserving our wildlife and our flora and fauna is not only part
of our heritage in Zimbabwe -- it was also the biggest foreign
currency earner. The government is destroying a self-sustaining
industry that all the people here benefit from. The communities that
live around the wildlife areas benefit from selling their wares. No
tourists want to come here and see all this bloodletting and