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Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy Is Threatened By Land Takeovers, Critics Charge

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A new wave of land takeovers and hunting licenses granted to loyalists of President Robert Mugabe is threatening a massive wildlife preserve in southeastern Zimbabwe, a consortium of wildlife ranchers charged Friday.

The Save Valley Conservancy group said the takeovers, labeled as black empowerment, benefitted "a few greedy individuals who care only for what they can take for themselves" with no interest in protecting an array of endangered wildlife — including the rhinoceros

The conservancy of about 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) is unsuitable for anything but wildlife tourism, the group said.

It said two thirds of its small-scale wildlife ranch operators are already black Zimbabweans, but land and hunting concessions given to 25 "connected political individuals" are set to destabilize the region's whole ecosystem.

Save (pronounced Sa-veh) is named after the river running through it, is the habitat with an abundance of elephant, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and eland, as well as the nation's second largest population of black rhino and most species African lowland animals and birds. The conservancy runs breeding programs, internationally recognized research on rare mottled or "painted" wild dogs and photographic and hunting trips.

The group said in a statement to The Associated Press on Friday that its own commercial hunting licenses were cancelled, depriving them of much needed income, while leading politicians of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in the southern Masvingo province, who had no past relationship with conservancy members were "miraculously" allocated land and hunting licenses last month.

They include Mugabe's minister of higher education Stan Mudenge, provincial governor Titus Maluleke and a ZANU -PF militant and former lawmaker, Mrs. Shuvai Mahofa. The conservancy said she is officially listed as having received nine farms under the often violent seizures of white owned farms that began in 2000 and has ignored two court orders to vacate a property she has occupied illegally on the conservancy.

Witnesses said at Mudenge's recent remarriage, guests feasted largely on the game meat of wild animals.

Maluleke, however, has accused white wildlife ranchers of resisting what is termed a wildlife-based land reform program that calls on them to go into partnership with blacks in wildlife and animal husbandry projects. No further comment was immediately available from Mugabe's party.

Mugabe insists the land takeovers are to correct colonial era imbalances in farm ownership that gave whites most prime land. But critics say many of the best farms have gone to Mugabe cronies since 2000 and still lie idle.

The Save Conservancy was founded in 1991 and has drawn support from the World Wildlife Fund and investors from Europe and United States who are protected under bilateral investment agreements with the countries involved.

The group said Friday its breeding and conservation successes put it in a position to help restock other nature preserves across the nation suffering from poaching and a lack of finances in Zimbabwe's troubled economy.

It also set up a community trust to channel earnings from its operations into five neighboring rural districts, supporting thousands of villagers and employing at least 800 workers in the conservancy.

The group said the takeovers pose legal and diplomatic repercussions that go well beyond stifling members' earnings and crippling the conservancy's conservation efforts before the United Nations World Tourism Organization summit to be held in Zimbabwe next year.

It alleged politicians and Mugabe loyalists were shielding behind racial differences over black empowerment as a "cover for greed."

"Let's end the madness of a few. We cannot host a global tourism conference and on the other hand destroy one of Zimbabwe's tourism jewels because a few want to lay their hands on the treasure," said Willy Pabst, deputy head of the conservancy consortium.

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