- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwes once-famous national beef herd is on the verge of extinction, exacerbating a famine caused in part by President Robert Mugabes disastrous program of land reform.

The commercial cattle herd, meticulously bred over 110 years to survive in Zimbabwes harsh conditions, was one of the countrys richest assets, earning as much as $2 billion a year in European exports.

In 2000, when Mr. Mugabe began his farm invasion strategy, the national herd numbered 1.4 million. Since then, more than 4,000 commercial farms have been seized and the herd is less than one-tenth of its former size.

Foot-and-mouth disease, sometimes called hoof-and-mouth disease, and tick fever are rampant.

“Fewer than 125,000 beef cattle survived at the last count, but the number is lower now. It is declining by the day,” said Paul DHotman, chief executive of the Cattle Producers Association based in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

“The entire national herd is on the road to extinction,” he said. “The whole gene pool is being wiped out.”

The decline in the herd is stark evidence of Zimbabwes problems. Inflation is running at 620 percent and hunger is widespread. The World Food Program estimates it will feed up to 45 percent of Zimbabwes population at some point this year, compared with about 20 percent in Ethiopia.

Mr. Mugabe has blamed the crisis on three years of drought, but neighboring countries such as Zambia have stepped up food production while Zimbabwes supplies have collapsed.

Mr. Mugabes land invasions initially benefited some landless peasants, but many of them were removed from the properties when government ministers and judges began laying claim to farms. Those peasants who retained land were promised government help, but many lacked the seed, animals, machinery and knowledge required to grow crops or raise livestock.

Dirk Odendaal was one of Zimbabwes top beef farmers until he was given 48 hours last year to leave his 4,940-acre farm, together with 1,200 pedigree Brahman-Charolais cattle he had bred over 22 years.

“It was impossible to get so many animals off the farm in that time,” Mr. Odendaal said in an interview. “It was heartbreaking. I watched what Id built over decades being destroyed before my eyes.”

Mr. Odendaal, whose confiscated farm lies 160 miles south of Harare in Masvingo province, said many of his cattle were stolen in the first hours of occupation as peasant settlers opened gates and broke down fences.

Cattle were confined in pens, where their hamstrings were severed before they were dismembered. “There was a complete breakdown of law and order,” he said.

About 300 cattle were stolen before Mr. Odendaal moved others to a neighboring property and began selling them for slaughter.

“I was converting my animals into cash because there was no longer anything I could do with them,” he said. He estimates that about 1,000 beef cattle survive in Masvingo compared with 54,000 one year ago.

Mr. Odendaal, who is now camping with his last 100 beasts on a small loaned property, wants to keep his last two stud bulls and some pedigree cows for as long as possible in case he can re-establish his business.

“Im not viable anymore,” said Mr. Odendaal, 55, who is married with three sons. “But Im determined to stay. Im a Zimbabwean. I was born and grew up here.”

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