HARARE, Zimbabwe — Robert Mugabe plans to send a "Noah's Ark" of Zimbabwean wildlife to fellow dictator, North Korea's Kim Jong-il.
Zimbabwean conservationists are furious about the plan and put up such fierce resistance that the plan may be dropped.
At first it was reported that the animals — including pairs of baby elephants, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, hyenas, antelopes, monkeys, warthogs and several types of birds — would be a personal gift to the North Korean leader. Later Zimbabwe's state news media reported that the animals would be displayed to the North Korean public in a zoo.
The scheme could be in doubt as Zimbabwean wildlife experts say the animals would not survive conditions in North Korea. The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported today that Mugabe's plan has been shelved.
Wildlife experts say the animals will have a tough journey during the 7,000 mile flight and then are unlikely to survive North Korea's cold temperatures and bad conditions.
Particularly at risk are the two baby elephants who are 18-months-old and 24-months-old, according to experts.
"Elephants typically breast feed until they are four, so these two babies have been taken away from their mothers much too early. I have seen them in their quarantine units and it is heartbreaking," said Johnny Rodrigues, chair of the Zimbabwe Conservation Trust.
"It is inhumane to send these animals to concrete cages in a zoo in a place as cold and inhospitable as North Korea. They can't look after their own people there, how are they going to care for these animals?" said Rodrigues to GlobalPost.
"These animals belong to Zimbabweans. North Korea has a low track record of looking after animals and we can't have our animals living in cages," said Rodrigues. "We should be working on a plan to improve our tourism. We cannot export the beauty of our country to other countries. What will future generations have if we export our heritage?"
In the 1980s Mugabe sent two rhinos — a male called Zimbo and a female named Zimba — to North Korea but they died a few months after being relocated.
Zimbabwean officials defend the export of the animals.
“From our professional judgment, these people (North Koreans) have the capacity to handle these animals,” said National Parks boss Vitalis Chadenga. “This is a legitimate business trade.” He said Zimbabwe will earn $30,000 for the animals.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 60,000 elephants and they cause havoc when living in close proximity to people in villages in the north of the country. Crops are trampled and people injured.
But Rodrigues and other conservationists object to moving the animals. "It's not a good business deal and it's not good for the animals," said Rodrigues. "We have beautiful parks. It's better to encourage people to come see the animals in their natural environment."
Robert Mugabe's controversial gift is embroiling Zimbabwe in its own version of the Korean War.
Mugabe has a longstanding intimate relationship with North Korea’s Stalinist leadership although suggestions that he intervened to order the transfer have been denied by Chadenga.
North Korea trained the Zimbabwe army's notorious Fifth Brigade which savagely suppressed an insurrection in Zimbabwe's southern Matabeleland provinces in the 1980s. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Zimbabwean civilians were killed in the brutal campaign.
When it was recently announced that the North Korean soccer team would camp in Zimbabwe ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament, there was such an outcry in Matabeleland that the North Koreans decided to train in South Africa.
While Mugabe’s regime is close to Pyongyang, his government of national unity (GNU) partners headed by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai are not. They are on good terms with South Korea.
Tsvangirai recently returned from an official visit to Seoul where he received an award for his record on governance and claimed he had signed a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (Bippa) with the South Koreans.
Mugabe’s spokesmen immediately put out a statement claiming only the president could sign such an agreement and charged that Tsvangirai had exceeded his constitutional authority. The South Koreans had been informed of the official position, the statement said.
When the prime minister’s office said it would discipline presidential spokesman George Charamba for undermining Tsvangirai, he dared them to go ahead.
“I am not worried about undermining anyone,” he said, suggesting Tsvangirai was guilty of “undermining government processes.”
Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Gorden Moyo said undermining Tsvangirai had assumed a pattern “which has been allowed to go on for too long.”
Whether Tsvangirai’s followers are able to discipline Charamba remains to be seen.
He is seen as heading that faction of former ruling party Zanu-PF hardliners who oppose any compromise with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
Negotiations within the government of national unity for structural reform in line with an agreement signed in 2008 have meanwhile hit a brick wall.
Mugabe recently proceeded to appoint High Court judges without consulting his GNU partners. They include a judge who headed the electoral commission at the time of the 2008 presidential and parliamentary polls which observers declared less than free and fair. It took five weeks to get the results published because Mugabe lost the popular vote.
Across the board Mugabe’s minions are blocking change and clawing back power. A supposedly independent media commission was recently appointed but its chief executive officer is the same person who presided over the closure of independent newspapers in 2003 to 2005.
The Attorney-General’s office is being used to prosecute and punish MDC supporters and civic activists. The latest victim appears to be Farai Muguwu, the head of a diamond monitoring agency who informed the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme monitor Abbey Chikane of human rights violations by the army and police in the diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe. His prosecution was, Mines minister Obert Mpofu said, “a case of a criminal nature in a law-abiding country.”
International NGO Global Witness this week published a report on the extent of the plunder in the Marange district. Zimbabwe’s political and military elite are seeking to capture the country's diamond wealth through a combination of state-sponsored violence and the legally questionable introduction of opaque joint-venture companies, the report reveals.
Critics say that Mugabe's sending of wildlife in a "Noah's Ark" to North Korea is just one example of how his regime regards all of Zimbabwe as theirs to plunder.