WHEN a high-powered ministerial delegation and members of the Joint Operation Command (JOC) visited Phumula Village in Chief Siphoso’s area of Tsholotsho to investigate the killing of more than 300 elephants and a variety of animal species through cyanide poisoning at Hwange National Park in October 2013, one of the most striking remarks in the ill-tempered engagement between officials and the local community were words by villager John Vumile Dube.
The meeting was tense as it came after scores of villagers fled to neighbouring South Africa while several others were arrested following then sabre-rattling Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere’s declaration of war against those who had brutally killed the animals.
Although Dube said villagers were sorry for causing the death of the elephants, he point blank told the ministers and JOC members — among them deputy commissioner general Godwin Matanga — that the villagers had no obligation to protect the animals as they were not benefitting from them.
Joc is a grouping of security forces including the army, Central Intelligence Organisation and police.
Dube said unlike in the past, when villagers used to benefit from wild animals through the then popular Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire), villagers now viewed animals, especially elephants, as a nuisance as they frequently destroyed crops on which they heavily relied for subsistence.
In fact, Dube went so far as to declare “the villagers’ hate elephants”.
The reason for the villagers’ antipathy towards elephants is not hard to locate.
Campfire was designed to give control of wildlife management to rural communities, so that they would invest in environmental conservation and in turn, villagers exploited the resources on a sustainable basis for their benefit. Profits from the project were used for communal benefit or distributed to individual households at the discretion of the community. Under the programme, rural district councils were authorised to market wildlife resources in their districts to safari operators on behalf of communities.
Safari operators would sell hunting and photographic safaris to mostly foreign sport hunters and eco-tourists, before paying the communities a dividend.
Dube was actively involved in Campfire projects in the district from 1987 until the programme stopped in 1999. During that time, he revealed, the community would benefit from funds generated by the programme, and villagers felt they had a duty to protect animals, unlike now.
“Campfire has since stopped remitting the 60% it is supposed to give village wards from the disposal of natural resources,” said Dube.
“The parks rangers have stopped patrolling areas adjacent to Hwange National Park and there is no one left to deal with problem animals. Elephants started moving from the park to the villages, destroying people’s crops. “As we speak, there are areas like Ward 1 and 7 where people have not harvested anything since 2009 because of the elephants. Poverty and hunger drove people to start this cruel practice of poisoning elephants that they had been co-existingwith.”
Dube’s remarks, which drew applause from fellow villagers, stunned the ministerial delegation that included Kasukuwere, Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, Health minister David Parirenyatwa, Agriculture minister Joseph Made, then local government minister Ignatius Chombo, former Information minister Jonathan Moyo, Mines minister Walter Chidhakwa and Tourism minister Walter Mzembi.
The killing of the elephants attracted the attention of world media, as well as conservationists. Besides elephants, the cyanide, which was used for poisoning, also claimed the lives of several animal species, among them, lions and scavengers that included hyenas and vultures, as well as other animals such as kudus and buffaloes, that shared the same waterholes.
Since the high profile-poisoning incident, Zimbabwe has also had high-profile cases such as the recent killing of the popular lion, Cecil, by an American recreational big-game trophy hunter, Walter Palmer.
Cecil was a major attraction at Hwange National Park, being studied and tracked by the University of Oxford.
The killing drew international media attention and sparked outrage among animal conservationists, politicians and celebrities, as well as a strong negative response against Palmer. However, there was no sympathy from the people of Hwange and surrounding areas who have lost relatives and domestic animals to lions.
Also in June, Zimbabwe exported 24 sub-adult elephants and 10 lions to China, sparking an international outcry from animal rights activists and conservationists. The jumbos were taken to Chimelong Safari Park in Guangdong Province.
The above cases, among others, have resulted in renewed concern over Zimbabwe’s wildlife conservation efforts, moreso after the decimation of animals at many farms and wildlife conservancies through poaching, following the chaotic land reform programme that began in 2000.
For people like Dube, government has unwittingly played a role in increased poaching through failure to secure national parks, and abandoning the empowerment of communities to co-exist with animals.
Villagers in areas such as Tsholotsho, Hwange, Dete, Victoria Falls, Jambezi, Bikita and Kariba, among others close to national parks, regularly encounter dangerous animals and yet they benefit little from their existence. In many cases they also risk their lives by guarding their crops day and night, occasionally resulting in fatal encounters. According to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority, 27 people were killed by wild animals across Zimbabwe during the first quarter of 2015, while 15 sustained injuries.
In revenge attacks, villagers killed 12 elephants, five lions and 10 crocodiles, during the same period.
The chiefs said villagers’ attitude towards animals could be different if they were benefitting from their protection.
Chief Shana revealed that people in his area had lost 640 cattle, 420 goats, as well as pigs and chickens to lions, hyenas and baboons.
“We are suffering,” said Chief Shana.
“We are losing our people, domestic animals and crops to the problem animals. Please assist!”
Chief Nelukoba, who lost 16 goats to lions and hyenas, weighed in saying: “We are in a district that is rich with natural resources, but we can’t reach them.”
Zimbabwe Chief’s Council president Chief Fortune Charumbira on Tuesday told the Zimbabwe Independent that communities living with animals were more of victims than beneficiaries of wildlife.
He said there was a need to revive the Campfire programme to enable villagers to benefit from the resources around them which would in turn make it easier for them to be involved in conservation efforts.
The Campfire programme is still in place, at least on paper, but in reality it is a pale shadow of its former self due to lack of funding, among other hurdles.
“Campfire was a dynamic solution to how locals could benefit from their natural resources, especially wildlife.
“Of late, however, Campfire participation in the preservation of wildlife has been low even in terms of developing local communities who live in areas with wild animals. It was a very good initiative which saw a number of donors coming in,” Charumbira said.
“Now donors are pulling out and Campfire no longer has that drive. It must be strengthened and this can be achieved if various organisations work together. We need a forum comprising chiefs, locals, safari operators, government and other organisations to discuss how Campfire can become effective again.”
At the height of the Campfire programme, 60 rural district councils participated, resulting in villagers benefitting from trophy hunting, while others embarked on a number of income-generating projects such as meat cropping, fishing, Mopani worms sales and safari operations.
Between 1989 and 2004, the programme raised about US$30 million, which was ploughed back into the communities.
At least 55% of money raised went directly to producer communities where it was channelled to development projects; 15% went to the RDCs, 26% went to support Campfire management at the council or community level while 4% was ploughed back to the Campfire Association.
Campfire contributed to job creation, empowerment, and diversification of livelihoods for rural communities. Some communities benefitted from infrastructure such as clinics, schools, grinding mills, boreholes and roads.
It is little wonder then that villagers such as Dube yearn for the good old days when Campfire helped with better wildlife management and livelihood sustainance.