THE widely reported cyanide poisoning of elephants from the adjacent Hwange National Park by Tsholotsho villagers reminded this writer of an encounter with a herd in 2008 in a village in Jambezi — 30km south-east of the Victoria Falls.
Having gone there as part of a team to formalise marriage arrangements for a relative, we were told to sit outside a hut overlooking crop fields while our hosts conferred among themselves.
As we sat, my attention was drawn towards a herd of eight elephants which soon trudged through the fields, trampling on the tasseling maize crop and ripping off whole branches from trees.
Sensing our fear, our hosts told us to remain calm as this was common.
“These animals eat everything in their wake, but our hands are tied as the country has laws against the killing of these beasts. It seems animals are more important than people,” our host said in despair.
While villagers in Jambezi are mostly law-abiding, poachers in Tsholotsho ruthlessly poisoned 95 elephants, leaving many people wondering what could have driven them to such callousness.
Because of the brutality of the killings, Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere has since “declared war” on poachers. So far nine people have been arrested for the killings, three of whom have been sentenced to 16 years imprisonment.
What is more shocking is that almost every household in Tsholotsho village has stocks of cyanide — a controlled substance.
But why have the villagers joined national and international poaching syndicates and what can be done to include them in wildlife conservation efforts?
Local communities near the game park blame government for failing to come up with broad-based empowerment initiatives which involve locals in wildlife areas, saying the collapse of the Campfire (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) initiative has left them without incentives to assist in conservation efforts.
The recent meetings between an inter-ministerial taskforce and Tsholotsho villagers have strongly driven home the fact that conservation efforts can only succeed if there is the buy-in of local communities as was the case with the Campfire projects.
With Campfire, rural district councils (RDCs) were authorised to market wildlife resources in their districts to safari operators on behalf of communities.
In turn, the safari operators would sell hunting and photographic safaris to mostly foreign sport hunters and eco-tourists. The RDCs would then pay the communities a dividend and from 1989–2001, Campfire generated over US$20 million for participating communities.
“The theory behind Campfire is that communities will invest in environmental conservation if they can exploit these resources on a sustainable basis for their own benefit,” said Felix Murindagomo, a senior ecologist in the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management during the 1990s.
However, Campfire was abandoned by government and its departments including the National Parks and due to desperation, more and more villagers started getting involved in poaching.
The state media last week quoted a Tsholotsho villager, John Dube, as telling ministers he had been working with Campfire since 1987 and problems started in 2009 when the organisation’s structures broke down.
“Campfire stopped remitting the 60% it is supposed to give village wards from the disposal of natural resources,” said Dube. “The parks rangers stopped patrolling areas adjacent to Hwange National Park and there was no one left to deal with problem animals. Elephants started moving from the park to the villages, destroying people’s crops.”
Tourism minister Walter Mzembi acknowledged the need to revive the Campfire projects.
He told the Zimbabwe Independent that communities are disconcerted and are indifferent to the poaching problem because they are not part of the economic chain.
“We should expand opportunity and scope for communities’ involvement. The solution is to draft the people into this empowerment orbit of wildlife conservation and they will realise it is senseless to sell their heritage for 30 pieces of silver,” Mzembi said.
Apart from Campfire, another model of wildlife conservation that has been tried is that of establishing wildlife conservancies like the world-famous Save Conservancy.
Save Conservancy is the country’s richest and largest private wildlife sanctuary in the world. It hit the headlines last year after it was invaded by Zanu PF bigwigs and army commanders, particularly from Masvingo province.
They parcelled it out among themselves before embarking on an orgy of wildlife hunting, sparking local and international outrage.
This prompted President Robert Mugabe to set up an inter-ministerial taskforce headed by former deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara to investigate the matter and come up with recommendations for a sustainable model of wildlife conservation which also involves local communities. The taskforce’s findings have not been made public.
Save Conservancy general manager David Goosen said the white entrepreneurs had proposed a business model where they could get into partnership with the local community.
“We want the conservancy to be run as a company where the local community will have shares in a trust represented by their chiefs,” said Goosen. “We know there is so much potential in the wildlife sector so we welcome community participation.”
In South Africa as in Zimbabwe, conservation efforts are also suffering due to the failure to meaningfully involve communities.
According to Michelle Cocks, who studied community-based natural resource management in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, “a period of chaos is reigning in large sections of the former Ciskei”.
Ciskei is a former black homeland southeast of South Africa granted nominal independence in 1980, but was re-absorbed into South Africa by the 1994 constitution.
She added that “local government structures and village structures are taking very little responsibility for resource management”, a scenario which closely mirrors the Zimbabwean situation.
As in Zimbabwe, this failure to fully integrate local communities in conservation has had adverse effects at a national level which has been illustrated by the new record of rhino poaching in September this year.
Poachers downed a record 704 rhinos, up from the 668 killed in 2012.
In a country with 80% unemployment and high poverty levels, the Zimbabwean government has a responsibility to revive Campfire and other initiatives which will secure the buy-in of communities in order to conserve wildlife.