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ELEPHANT `HARVEST' GROTESQUE BUT NECESSARY

On a shelf of land overlooking an arid plain in Zimbabwe's second-largest national park, a crude abattoir has been set up under the shade of tall trees.

Meat hooks hang from a long horizontal pole, a shallow trench has been dug for the flow of blood and mounds of coarse salt await the abundant harvest of elephant meat.Last week this vast, isolated parcel of the low veld became a killing field for the richest bounty of a huge wildlife cull. About 2,000 elephants in Gonarezhou National Park are being shot to reduce the herd to a nucleus that can survive until the rains return.

Pokwe Pool, about seven miles from the Mozambique border, is the base camp for the cull. Over the last few months it was used to process meat from impala and buffalo, two other targets in the unprecedented operation to save the park's wildlife through culling or live translocation to private game ranches. Now it's the turn of the elephants, the strongest survivors in the life-and-death battle for scarce water and forage.

Zimbabwe is highly sensitive to international opinion of its elephant culls yet aware of the riches the animals can yield. The ivory alone is worth millions of Zimbabwe dollars; live elephants are highly sought after both by game ranchers in Zimbabwe and buyers overseas, fetching up to $5,000 apiece for foreign export.

"The decision (to cull) went up to the president's office," said Headman Sibanda, one of two National Parks and Wildlife Management wardens in Gonarezhou.

This cull was made more palatable by the ravages done to the park, first by drought and then by famished elephants' uprooting bushes and trees in their drive for food. After journalists from around the globe poured into Gonarezhou to record the plight of starving animals - noting that meat from the kills was given free to hungry African villagers - the elephant kill was easier to sell.

But it's not without its problems. Gonarezhou, which means "Place of the Elephants" in the local Shangaan language, has a reputation for government involvement in poaching and illegal ivory rings. Between 1987 and 1989, the park was closed because of the war in Mozambique and the Zimbabwe army moved in. Coincidentally, the black market price of ivory soared when an international ban on its sale was imposed in 1989.

"Gonarezhou elephants are known to have the biggest tusks in the country," explained Sibanda. "They compare with the tuskers in Tanzania. When I came here in 1990, there were army and police camps all over. I arrested five policemen for poaching."

For this cull, the parks department will maintain mobile strongrooms guarded 24 hours a day by one policeman and one game scout. After the tusks are removed, they'll be stamped and stored in the containers. "This is a new measure, to counter accusations about what went missing in the field," said Sibanda.

Another obstacle is the lack of transport.

"We could shoot 30 elephants a day and recover just the ivory, but we would waste valuable meat, valuable hides," said Warden Takawira Madawo, seconded from Hwange National Park for the operation. "We could handle 15 to 20 a day with two tractors, four lorries and three trucks. But now we are dependent on one vehicle."

Not only will the cull be agonizingly slow, it is also late. According to a schedule set in May by the Gonarezhou Crisis Executive Committee, mandated to oversee the wildlife rescue, the elephant cull was to have been completed by Aug. 31. There areonly a few months left before the rainy season, which, if it comes in November, will put an end to the culling.

An earlier plan of the committee to translocate adult elephants to private game ranches appears to have been shelved.

"Only South Africa has moved adult elephants, and that was six," said Sibanda. "We would like to try it because we don't want to be left behind, but we don't have the money."