By Peta Thornycroft
Harare - Zimbabwe government wildlife officials have blacklisted a conservation group that has raised millions of rands to save animals in the Hwange National Park, one of Africa's great game reserves.
The Zimbabwean government has accused Rodrigues of making false reports about the management of its wildlife areas.
Rodrigues runs the Conservation Task Force and raised an international alert 18 months ago when he revealed that thousands of animals would die in the 14 000-square-kilometre park in western Zimbabwe unless new pumps were installed at watering holes.
Readers of the The Sunday Independent and of the The Daily Telegraph in the UK responded swiftly and donations poured in, most of them from the UK, South Africa and Australia.
The Friends of Hwange Conservation Society was formed to handle donations totalling about $1 million at a time when the Zimbabwe government had no funds to maintain the park.
Pumps were sent from South Africa for dozens of water pans, fuel and vehicles were taken north for the game rangers, and there was financial support for underpaid government staff at the park.
"About 1 000 animals had died, most of them of thirst, in the previous year," Rodrigues said on Friday. "Not one has died in the dry months since because most of the pumps are now working and we had good rain last summer."
But this week Rodrigues was told in a letter from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, signed by its director-general, Morris Mtsambiwa "Due to continuous negative and false reports emanating from your organisation about conservation in Zimbabwe, the authority can no longer afford to associate with you, as this association is now a liability to the nation â¦ with immediate effect the authority will no longer accept any donations that will come through your organisation."
Rodrigues has been energetic in raising funds with which to preserve Zimbabwe's dwindling wildlife heritage and regularly criticises both the government and some private sector safari operators for corruption or destructive practices.
His last alert to the international media went out three months ago, when he accused Zimbabwe's largest safari company, Shearwater Adventures - which operates from Victoria Falls, a World Heritage site - of capturing, and separating from their mothers, about a dozen young elephants in Hwange.
The young elephants will be trained and used to give rides to tourists.
He condemned both Zimbabwe's National Parks and Wildlife Authority, and Shearwater Adventures. He said that attempting to domesticate wild animals was "in contravention of accepted policy worldwide".
One of the young elephants died shortly after it was captured and the Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ZNSCPA) has laid a charge of cruelty against Shearwater Adventures.
Shearwater's publicity material claims that the elephants it uses to give rides to tourists are orphans that it rescued from drought-stricken areas several years ago. But the company doesn't dispute that the youngsters it captured last November were taken from their mothers.
A tourist watched some of the young elephants being shot with anaesthetic darts and loaded into a large container that, she said, had little ventilation. She said they were left for 24 hours, in extreme distress, on a "terribly hot" day.
"I am not an expert but I was with a couple of people who are, and they were upset. The distress of the young elephants was dreadful," she said.
Linda Cook, a lawyer for Shearwater Adventures, said on Friday "We have vets' reports that confirm that the capture was properly and professionally carried out, that there is no cruelty and that the charges instigated by the ZNSPCA cannot be sustained and should be withdrawn."
Rodrigues has slammed hunters, most of them from South Africa and the United States, for decimating the lions of southern Zimbabwe, where they are, if only in theory, a protected species.
When Hwange National Park was critically short of funds, Rodrigues exposed the wildlife authority's purchase of a fleet of top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive vehicles - for top officials in Harare.
Rodrigues yesterday said he would take legal advice on how to respond to the wildlife authority's decision to refuse to accept money that he had helped to raise.
Shortly before Christmas, British members of Friends of Hwange Conservation Society gave money for the schooling of the children of park employees.
Many South African wildlife enthusiasts have trekked to Hwange over the past 18 months to help to repair pumps and vehicles.
Friends of Hwange in Harare, which depends on Rodrigues's energy and ability to raise funds - and on his ability to grab the attention of the international media - on Friday failed to return phone calls.
National parks officials failed to answer telephones at their Harare headquarters, or their cellphones. - Foreign Service