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.

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.

"Many have histories of exploitative business practices, muscling into firms, stripping them of all value, and moving on, which creates a high risk of systematic poaching on seized lands," the report said.

The lack of transparency into the inner workings of Mugabe's government makes it difficult to establish direct links between government loyalists and their interests in wildlife areas. The report said ownership is often masked through associates, family members, and shell companies.

Using data-mining software developed by Palantir, a technology company in California, C4ADS named 18 people involved in what the report describes as the "political/military takeover of Save Valley Conservancy."

They include Maj. Gen. Engelbert Rugeje, the inspector general of Zimbabwe's defense forces. Rugeje is not on the sanctions list maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe has long been aware of concerns over Rugeje.

In the fall of 2009, he was accused of threatening to shoot a Zimbabwean lawmaker who had criticized the general for using soldiers to intimidate voters, according to an embassy cable published by the Wikileaks website. Rugeje previously was reported to the embassy for orchestrating violence in parts of Zimbabwe where candidates who ran against Mugabe's ZANU-PF party were elected to parliament.

If you liked this article you might like

What's Behind the Surge in Energy Stocks

Hillary Clinton Says Prosecuting Individuals is Key to Wall Street Reform