WASHINGTON (AP) -- Political and military elites are seizing protected areas in one of Africa's last bastions for elephants, putting broad swaths of Zimbabwe at risk of becoming fronts for ivory poaching, according to a nonprofit research group's report that examines government collusion in wildlife trafficking.
Zimbabwe has maintained robust elephant populations compared with other countries on the continent. But Zimbabwe's economic decline has led Zimbabweans with ties to President Robert Mugabe's ruling party to find new methods of making money. The report, released Monday, says they may be turning to elephants' highly valued ivory tusks.
Zimbabwe's embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, commissioned the report from Washington-based C4ADS to better understand the role organized crime and corrupt government officials play in ivory trafficking across Africa, said Adam Roberts, Born Free USA's chief executive officer.
Wildlife trafficking long has been viewed as a conservation issue, but it has exploded into an illicit global economy monopolized by mafia-like syndicates and enabled by high-level bureaucrats and powerful business interests. The report describes a toxic combination of conflict, crime and failures of governance throughout Africa that threatens to wipe out the continent's dwindling elephant herds.
China, the world's largest market for ivory, is compounding the threat, the report said. Chinese companies have won lucrative contracts in Zimbabwe for mining and construction projects near remote elephant habitats, bringing waves of workers and new roads that can be exploited by East Asian crime organizations, the report said.
North of Zimbabwe, in central Africa, an estimated 23,000 elephants, or roughly 60 each day, were killed last year. A pound of elephant tusk sells for about $1,500 on the black market. That's more than double the price just five years ago. Ivory is used to make carved ornaments and trinkets.
Rhinoceroses also are heavily poached for their horns, which some Asian cultures believe contain medicinal properties.
TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network, says there are between 47,000 and 93,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. The gap is due to the fact that full-fledged surveys of the animals have not been carried out since 2007, said Richard Thomas, the organization's spokesman.
Across Africa, there are close to 500,000 elephants, a fraction of the nearly 10 million that roamed there just 100 years ago.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month signaled its worries about the future of Zimbabwe's herds in a decision blocking the importation of African elephant trophies taken in Zimbabwe during 2014. Noting the cyanide poisoning of 300 elephants last year in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, the agency said it has "significant concerns about the long-term survival of elephants in Zimbabwe."
The ban also applies to Tanzania.
The Obama administration in February published a national strategy for combating the multibillion-dollar poaching industry, relying on many of the same tactics used against terrorist organizations and drug cartels. The plan outlines a "whole of government approach" that includes working with other countries to increase the number of investigations and arrests, using high-tech gear to identify poaching hot spots, and targeting the bank accounts of wildlife traffickers and the corrupt bureaucrats who assist them.
"Our findings shine a bright light on Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sudan, and Kenya, where poachers move across borders with near impunity, slaughter elephants with complete disregard, and use the ivory to fund violent operations across the continent," said Born Free USA's Roberts. "Global leaders cannot stand by while the human tragedy and poaching crisis continue.
Zimbabwe, the report said, could become a poaching hot spot with little warning.
Mugabe has led the country since independence from British rule in 1980. In his early years in power, he expanded public education and health services, making Zimbabwe a beacon on the continent. But Zimbabwe's economy went into meltdown in 2000 after Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms, leading to the collapse of the agriculturally based economy, once the region's breadbasket.
More than a decade ago, the U.S. and the European Union began imposing sanctions against Mugabe and members of his inner circle for human rights abuses, public corruption, and vote-rigging. The penalties set strict business and travel bans. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has blamed the sanctions for Zimbabwe's economic woes, but many economists say the country's economic problems are caused by Mugabe's policies.
Among the areas in jeopardy is Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy, a 1,000-square-mile collection of unfenced wildlife reserves that is home to most of the country's elephants and rhinoceroses. Land reform policies have allowed politically connected people to receive hunting permits and land leases in the conservancy, according to C4ADS.