Zambian security and defence chiefs have voiced concern over foreign poaching syndicates flying undetected in Zambian airspace.
Addressing journalists late last week in Lusaka shortly before announcing a ban on the hunting of lions and other big cats, Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo said her ministry has information that some of the gangs responsible for the upsurge of poaching in the country’s game parks have diversified to smuggling live wild animals out of the country from disused and clandestine airstrips.
One suspected clandestine airstrip is reported by Zambian animal rights watchdogs to be under construction near Mfuwe Lodge in the South Luangwa National Park.
Zambia is following Kenya’s successful example of banning sport and trophy hunting, as it believes tourism will more than make up for the $3 million a year the country generates through hunting. “Why should we lose our animals for $3-million a year? The benefits we get from tourist visits are much higher,” Masebo said.
Meanwhile, Botswana has decided to ban all sport hunting from 2014, with the aim of promoting itself as a game viewing destination. However, there are growing concerns about Africa’s big animals in the face of a surge in poaching of elephants for their ivory and rhino in South Africa for their horns to meet soaring demand from Asian countries.
Submitting evidence before the Sebastian Zulu Commission of Inquiry into the cancellation of a contract for the Zambia Air Traffic Management Surveillance Radar System in 2011, the Department of Civil Aviation said Zambian airspace was safe, even without a radar network. At the time, Department of Civil Aviation director Kenneth Silavwe said that in the absence of a radar system, air traffic controllers were relying on voice communications to guide aircraft.
In a statement released after holding an emergency national security review meeting with the chiefs of the Department of Civil Aviation, the Zambian Army, the Air Force, the Zambian Police Service, the national state security service and the Zambian Prison Service shortly after Masebo’s statement, defence minister Geoffrey Mwamba downplayed the possibility of foreign aircraft entering and leaving Zambian airspace without detection.
However, Mwamba’s statement contrasts a similar revelation by President Sata who said in November that in its current state, the Zambian Air Force is incapable of defending national airspace. Sata said the country is lucky not to be at war because the Air Force needs more aircraft and more trained aviation staff in order to develop the capacity to defend and secure national airspace.
He said the air force also needs to upgrade its airbases and airstrips following a report from the commander of the Air Force who said most of them are in a state of decay while some have been encroached upon by civilian activities which include illegal use for farming purposes. He also complained of inadequate and sub-standard troop accommodation in the barracks saying such conditions de-moralise and de-motivate the officers of the Air Force.
However, in December last year Mwamba said the Government is ready to equip Zambia Air Force to ensure that it is capable of defending Zambia’s air space. He said the government would ensure that transport aircraft and air defence equipment is provided to the Zambian Air Force.
Established in 1968, the Zambian Air Force is crippled by a lack of spares while its pilots lack flying hours due to the shortage of aircraft. Defence analysts say the ZAF has very little or no combat capability and would be hard pressed to defend the country if it came under attack.
The ZAF’s capabilities have received minor boosts over the last few years as a result of increasing military co-operation between Zambia and China. The two countries signed a military co-operation protocol in 1998. In 1999 Zambia received eight K-8 Karakorum jet trainers in kit form from the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Co-operation and took delivery of another eight in March 2012.
In 2006, the ZAF received seven transport planes – five Y12 and two MA60 aircraft – from China and last year received four Harbin Z-9 helicopters, with another four expected to follow.