Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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A Wildlife Paradise

A Wildlife Paradise

18 Feb 2015

Cyril Zenda

THEY say Christmas comes once a year. So when in early January, Archwell Maramba, a 58-old villager from Zimunya communal lands, ecstatically accepted a special gift from his friends, what he was not sure about was whether it was a very early Christmas present for the brand new year or a belated one for the year just gone by. What he was only sure of was that a huge feast was in valley conservancyLittle did he know that this gift, for which he  so profusely thanked his friends for, would turn out to be the proverbial witch’s tit, the bitter after-taste which would give him excruciating heartburn for the next nine long years.
The gift that Maramba accepted while salivating in gluttonous lust was a huge python that fellow villagers had killed. Knowing that Maramba was the only person in the area who had a special appetite for this reptile, the well-meaning villagers thought they were doing their friend a favour when they delivered the dead snake to his doorstep. And he thanked them for that.

A few days later, Maramba was standing before Mutare magistrate Sharon Chipanga on very serious charges of contravening Section 45 of the Parks and Wildlife Act because pythons are classified as a specially protected species.
“I wanted to eat the python to cure my spine and ever since I ate my first python I have seen remarkable improvements. I only eat pythons and I was introduced to that by artisanal diamond miners in Chiadzwa a few years back,” he told the court after pleading guilty to the offence.
That made magistrate Chipanga’s task an easy one. She dutifully sentenced the villager to nine years in jail, the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who kills or is found in possession of specially protected animals (or their products) like pythons, pangolins, civets, southern African hedgehogs, the African wild cats, the bat-eared foxes, among others.
The sentence sparked outrage among some Zimbabweans, who took to the now ubiquitous social media platforms to express their shock at what they felt was a sentence too harsh for what they consider a petty crime.
One member of the Internet users (an influential community commonly known as netizens) summed up the public outrage thus: “I wonder if we have a Ministry of Justice and if it is there, what purpose it is serving? Yes, a python is a protected species, but what I do not get is where is social justice in a country where a rapist gets a one-year suspended sentence for raping a minor. The sentence should be in sync with the gravity of the offence. Let’s be realistic!”
There was very little the presiding magistrate could have done in this case because the crime for which Maramba was convicted falls under a special motley of laws under which — usually after massive lobbying by activists — Parliament proscribes minimum sentences.

Usually the legislature does this in respect of crimes that appear to be prevalent and are believed to be causing serious economic or social harm. Apart from the Parks and Wildlife Act, other statutes under which mandatory minimum sentences could be imposed include the Exchange Control Act, the Firearms Act, the Precious Stones Trade Act, the Road Traffic Act and the all-encompassing Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
The legislature prescribes such sentences where it believes that stern deterrent punishments are required and that it is not enough simply to lay down high maximum sentences for these offences and to hope that the courts will impose stiff sentences as a deterrent.

By prescribing mandatory minimum sentences, the legislature interferes with the normal sentencing discretion of judicial officers to decide upon an appropriate level of sentence based upon the particular circumstances of the offence and the offender and the various mitigating and aggravating factors in the case.
With mandatory sentences, the sentence is no longer individualised by any other unique circumstance.
Maramba is one of the many Zimbabweans who have in the recent past run afoul of these ruthless laws.
His crime was being found in possession of products (meat and skin) of a python, which by law (even where an animal dies of natural causes, let alone being killed) should be trophies of the State.
The no-nonsense Parks and Wildlife Act — most of whose sections are a result of massive lobbying by local foot soldiers of deep-pocketed international conservationist groups, most of whom just seek a blanket ban on any exploitation without caring about the feelings, beliefs and traditions of the local communities in which those animals are found — is one of the many laws that cause friction between conversationalists and indigenous communities the world over.
People in many African communities have traditionally sought and achieved greatness (as well great satisfaction) from mastering exceptional skills in such seemingly banal disciplines as hunting, farming, foundry and even dancing and drum-beating.

For a people deeply steeped in such traditional belief, it should therefore come as no surprise that individuals like Maramba would depend on the flora and fauna around them in the practice of their own peculiar traditional medicines and other rituals.
But with the advent of Western-styled laws, they all became criminals.
Those opposed to these harsh sentences argue that it usually takes a lot of raw emotion coupled with a dangerous lack of imagination to come up with what they see as malevolent and spiteful pieces of legislation as there is no empirical evidence to support the theory that harsh sentences work as an effective deterrent to wanton crime.
If anything, evidence largely exists to the contrary. In the 18th century, Britain had to look for, and set up, penal colonies in Australia and other parts of the world after realising that the death penalty—the harshest punishment imaginable (sometimes carried out in the most cruel of manners like dismembering, disembowelling or burning of convicts) — had dismally failed in scaring its citizens from committing various crimes. Under the so-called “Blood Code”, by the 1770s there were 222 crimes in Britain that carried the death penalty, almost all of which were crimes against property. These included such offences as the stealing of goods worth over five shillings, the cutting down of a tree, the theft of an animal, even the theft of a rabbit from a warren. Despite the harshest of all sentences being meted out, it was observed that the surest place to find pickpockets plying their trade in London was in a crowd gathered to witness one of their own being hanged.
It is on such basis that those outraged by these harsh sentences alleged that most of the activists who continue to lobby for these “inhuman” sentences are, just like all other activists the world over, driven more by the monetary rewards and other featherbeddings that come from being seen to subscribe to views — no matter how zany or harebrained — espoused by the rich and powerful and less by their own personal convictions. And some of these activists are viewed as being driven more by exceptional sadism than simply by their love for the wildlife. For these people, no punishment is good enough even for the smallest of all violations.
Obviously most of these allegations are dangerously broad generalisations and therefore unfair. But unfair as they might be, some of those in the conservationist movement make it easy for their detractors to think they indeed have no moral high ground to stand on to defend their entrenched positions, especially when spirited efforts to get them to explain the logic behind their thinking turn out to be hopelessly unavailing.
In Zimbabwe, one of these passionate self-styled animal lovers is Lisa Hywood of Tikki Hywood Trust, which prides itself in the protection and conservation of a number of small animals species as well as actively lobbying for increase of sentences on offenders to “morally acceptable standards”.

Hywood’s trust regularly goes into fits of wild celebrations when harsh penalties have been meted out to wildlife offenders.
“The Tikki Hywood Trust is pleased to announce that two of the four poachers were sentenced on 12 June 2014, to the full nine years in jail for poaching a Specially Protected Species under Chapter 20:14 Parks & Wildlife Act on Zimbabwe, Section 45 and Section 128. Both accused Mr Nyasha Binga and Mr Gift Famba were found guilty of poaching a pangolin and sentenced according,” said the trust in one of its statements last year. This was after the courts had jailed two men found in possession of a pangolin.
Added the trust, which has successfully roped in Olympic swimming sensation Kirsty Coventry to be its goodwill ambassador, “Justice does not just happen and this has been a huge team effort! Our sincere thanks goes to the CID Minerals and Border Control together with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife management Authorities who brought these criminals to book. We also salute other members of the public who assisted in these cases.”
But when The Financial Gazette approached Hywood to comment on whether, in the private forum of her own conscience, she truly believes that justice is being served when family men like Maramba, Binga and Famba are made to languish in jail for inordinately long periods, she chose the most round-about escape route. Her initial reaction was to be extremely polite, thanking this writer for affording her an opportunity to make their position clear, then she asked a few questions which she said would help her in formulating an appropriate response. She then changed tack, saying the deadline given to her to answer the written questions was too tight, a request to which she was given all the time she could possibly need. But eventually follow up efforts, nearly three weeks later, drew blanks.

Hywood’s colleagues at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) were also not forthcoming to queries on whether this form of “justice” meted on Maramba and the others do not constitute a gross injustice of its own.
Its spokesperson, Caroline Washaya, initially reacted with the braggadocio typical of most military and quasi-military outfits, “warning” this writer that they were a very busy people before angrily making half-hearted assurances that the authority would be responding to the written questions. Follow-up efforts two weeks later yielded no joy.

However, hardliners like Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the militant Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which is fighting the government for allegedly not doing enough to protect the wildlife and the environment, believe the mandatory minimum sentences being imposed on offenders are actually too lenient; instead the death sentence would do the trick.

“With regard to harsh prison sentences, I don’t believe they are harsh enough. There should be very harsh sentences for people killing or eating wildlife, especially endangered species,” Rodrigues told the Financial Gazette.
“Nobody should be allowed to kill and eat endangered species, not even the indigenous people. The only way to stop them is to make them shareholders in the wildlife. Pay them to look after the animals so they will not be so keen to kill them.”
He added: “You say that harsh sentences do not deter people from poaching but I don’t believe this. Surely it must be a deterrent to know that if you get caught poaching, you will get a very harsh prison sentence or even a death sentence.”
While mandarins at the ZimParks are busy in their meetings, and “netizens” clamour bitterly about what they view as disproportionate sentences to “minor” crimes and the likes of Rodrigues and Hywood are seized with lobbying for even harsher punishment, Maramba and those of his ilk, who either deliberately or through blissful ignorance, have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, will continue to wish they are having a very frightful dream from which they will soon awaken. Sadly this would not be the case. The law is the law. So much about justice!
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