Guards at Harry’s Africa charity face new killing and torture allegations

Published by The Mail on Sunday (17th March, 2024)

An African conservation charity of which Prince Harry is a director is facing further accusations of human rights abuses that include extra-judicial killings and violent beatings.

Fresh allegations of brutality in Zambia by rangers jointly managed by African Parks have emerged following the MoS’s front-page report in January about armed guards engaged in beatings, rape and torture of the Baka tribal people in the Republic of Congo.

The charity – which manages parks in 12 African countries, with 1,400 guards patrolling protected land almost the size of Britain – claims that it saves wildlife by working with local communities. 

And prior to the allegations being made, Prince Harry, the charity’s president for six years until he joined the governing board of directors last year, boasted: ‘The African Parks model is exactly what conservation should be about – putting people at the heart of the solution.’

But now allegations of brutality have surfaced in Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands, a conservation area almost the size of Devon that is home to 50,000 indigenous people who have the right to ‘sustainably harvest’ natural resources such as fish, antelope and rabbits.

African Parks has managed the area since 2008, in partnership with the government and six local chiefdoms. The charity says it is its only project where management responsibilities are not fully integrated, with conservation law enforcement remaining under the supervision of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife. 

While it is not clear exactly who perpetrated the attacks in Zambia, an investigation by this newspaper has found evidence that, in September 2021, a marketplace was sprayed with gunfire that left scores of villagers injured, including young children.

Impoverished people in Bangweulu, one of Africa’s most important wetlands, now say they are suffering a campaign of intimidation to stop them fishing and hunting on their own land while tourists arrive on safari expeditions that can cost up to £5,000 a day.

‘Our home has become a nightmare that frightens us every day,’ said Luni Elo, who was shot during the attack at Muwele village’s market. Farmer Chipulu Mwale, 23, who was also wounded, pleaded for African Parks to leave: ‘They have turned this place into hell.’

African Parks insists it has ‘zero tolerance’ for human rights abuse and has hired Cherie Blair’s law firm to investigate the MoS’s original allegations that rangers in Congo were beating, raping and torturing locals.

The MoS has seen minutes from the biggest chiefdoms’ council meetings that record claims of ‘extra-judicial killings, maiming, severe beatings and torture’. The document says ’12 people have been shot dead or beaten to death’ and that poaching suspects are ‘paraded naked in front of their families and neighbours’. Newton Ng’uni, the council chairman, claimed cases included a man killed after being caught fishing. ‘They just beat him – but not a single ranger has been imprisoned,’ he said.

Villagers in Muwele claim the market shooting happened after rangers arrested a man found with antelope meat, then chased a second suspect into the village in defiance of an agreement with the local community. This sparked protests and stone-throwing that damaged vehicles, including two belonging to African Parks.

The Ministry of Tourism said law enforcement officers ‘fired warning shots to disperse the villagers’. Locals claim 48 people were injured, including five women and three children. ‘I was hit in the arm,’ said farmer Chanda Mwewa. ‘The pain was excruciating.’

A government minister told Zambia’s parliament that ‘moderate force’ was used on ‘riotous’ and ‘irate residents’. And African Parks said incidents had been reported to the criminal justice system and rangers were found to have acted in self-defence ‘due to armed threats from suspected poachers’.

‘It’s our way of life – what they call poaching is just fishing or hunting,’ said one man. Sturburn Chuma, co-founder of Zambian campaign group Action For Nature, said: ‘We agree with conservation but people still need something to put on their table.’ African Parks admitted in its 2022 annual report that it had seen ‘a number of unfortunate interactions… between residents and the park rangers, which have led to both injuries and fatalities’.

Fiore Longo, campaign director of Survival International, which fights for the rights of indigenous people, says: ‘This is another case of abuse and violence supposedly in the name of conservation.’

Her group wrote to Prince Harry in May about ‘appalling human rights abuses’ in Congo’s Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Harry’s spokesman said the Duke ‘immediately escalated’ the allegations to the chairman and chief executive of African Parks.

The charity told this newspaper none of the investigative teams had yet visited the park. There is no suggestion that Harry had any knowledge of the allegations about what happened in Zambia.

African Parks said: ‘While there have been incidents that we condemn, suggesting African Parks is responsible for structural misconduct in the area would be false.’

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