Villagers in Dete, on the borders of the world’s second largest elephant population in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, are being forced to stay in their maize fields overnight in an audacious bid to fend off elephants from eating their crops.
By day, women guard what has become a battlefield of elephant-human conflict. Men take over at night, using fire torched sticks to push the jumbos back.
“Only a road separates Hwange National Park and the villagers,” says Ndlelende Ncube, Coordinator of the Tikobane Trust, which works with communities around the park.
“There are about 15 or 20 villages with over 20,000 people, who are on the Park’s borders due to forced changes in land use during colonial times. It’s a very challenging situation.
“During the night the men put up fires on the road and they throw their fire torched sticks towards approaching elephants. It’s very dangerous. Sometimes elephant’s retaliation.”
It is not clear how many elephants have been injured or killed in the clashes. However, official data shows that 339 people nationwide have been killed in human wildlife conflict since 2014. Eighty-two people were killed in the last 15 months. Elephants, lions and crocodiles account for most of the encounters.
“Zimbabwe’s human wildlife conflict statistics are showing a gradual increase in the number of people being killed and injured by various species from the year 2014 to 2021, and that is a worrying trend,” Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management (ZimParks) Director-General, Fulton Mangwanya, told Zim Morning Post.
“It is often difficult to deal with all of the problems caused by wildlife in the communal lands immediately but our staff react as quickly as possible to agree on best non-lethal control measures.”
Just over 1,150 wild animals, caught up in human wildlife conflict, have been eliminated by rangers in the last eight years, countrywide, ZimParks officials say.
In the same period, just under 3,000 livestock – cattle, donkeys and goats – have been killed by wildlife.
Over 60,000 cases of crop damage have been recorded in Mbire, central Zimbabwe, leaving many smallholder farmers food insecure. None were compensated.
According to information supplied to ZimParks by Hwange Rural District Council, the latter said at one time, it provided a paltry Z$3,000 (GBP 6) to help cover costs for the burial of two victims of human wildlife conflict.
ZimParks officials say they try, within the confines of the law, to provide consolation and other non-monetary options such as employment opportunities for affected villages. However, it is not enough.
Compensation remains a contentious issue even as the 1992 Wildlife Policy is currently being reviewed by the Government.
“How to compensate for human life that is lost? It’s difficult because life is too precious. There is a need to have a framework to help local communities and innovation is required in this space,” says Mangwanya.
Official data shows that 91 people injured in human wildlife conflict in the last 15 months received sporadic and insufficient medical assistance from Rural District Councils (RDCs) and ZimParks.
It could not be ascertained how much the Hwange and Mbire Rural District Councils have received annually from revenue generated from wildlife, mainly from safari hunting.
Zim Morning Post could also not get specific details of what the hunting industry is doing for local communities in these affected areas under CAMPFIRE.
However, sources say the funds paid in the form of concession fees to the RDCs are often diverted to other non-conservation activities.
Information also remains sketchy around what Safari Operators contracted by the RDCs are doing for the local communities and the wildlife they hunt in these community concessions under CAMPFIRE, a government-run community-based natural resource management programme.
Gideon Dube, 74 who was recently injured in an elephant conflict in Dete says he has been left to nurse his own injuries following the incident, without support from authorities.
ZimParks has promised change is coming. “We believe we can develop our wildlife economy and increase benefit flow to local communities and stakeholders in the conservation industry, particularly to ensure local people receive more tangible benefits, not just costs and liabilities from living with wildlife,” says Mangwanya.
“We know Rural District Councils have assisted the bereaved families, resource permitting, with funeral support in some instances as well,” he adds.
A community member who preferred anonymity, fearing victimisation, lamented that communities have no control over monetary gains from wildlife, which are administered by RDCs and the Safari Operators.
“We do not know what is contained in the agreements signed on behalf of the community by the RDC,” said the Hwange villager.
At least 800,000 families from 55 administrative districts in Zimbabwe are supposed to be benefitting from the CAMPFIRE programme.
“We were told it is under review and soon there will be a re-launch of the CAMPFIRE programme. Maybe things will change for the better,” the villager adds.
“At the moment, operators come to hunt our wildlife and drink expensive wines but nothing trickles down to us. Next time we will stop them from hunting in our communities until we have a transparent agreement of what they are supposed to be doing for us and for our wildlife.”
Whilst some Government technocrats believe a change of policy on CAMPFIRE is a good move, some feel it will only serve as a stop gap measure. Cabinet officials in the Environment portfolio say the real game changer would be Zimbabwe being granted permission to do a one-off sale of its elephant ivory and rhino horns stockpile worth US$600 million – to fund conservation measures and community based conservation initiatives under CAMPFIRE 2.0.
Zimbabwe’s Government believes lifting restrictions in the sale of the country’s stockpile will fund conservation for the next 20 years.
That way, they say, the country will not need to carry a begging bowl to finance conservation of its wildlife heritage.
“As a country, we have not fully benefited from such a huge (elephant) population due to various restrictions including international ivory trade,” Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Mangaliso Ndlovu, said during World Wildlife Day in March.
“We will therefore continue to work with like-minded nations to push for decisions that promote the growth and stability of our wildlife populations. We also call for CITES Parties to make science based decisions rather than populist decisions whose long term effects threaten the same species we seek to protect,” he added.
Activists say Zimbabwe’s call is noble but some question a lack of clarity in existing schemes supposed to direct money to wildlife and local communities, alleging that existing mechanisms are susceptible to corruption and capture.
“Among many concerns is the secrecy surrounding the sale of 101 baby elephants to China and the United Arab Emirates between 2016 and 2019,” says animal rights activist, Sharon Hole.
“ZimParks told the Parliament of Zimbabwe that it sold an individual elephant at US$32,000 yet one elephant sale price can reach US$100,000. This type of the iceberg shows the system cannot be trusted,” she added.
ZimParks argue that there are signed agreements for such transactions and everything is audited.
Turning to conservation, Parks and Wildlife authorities say considerable positive strides have resulted in conservation gains in the last five years compared to the previous dispensation.
“We have managed to reduce poaching of key species to the extent that elephant populations have blossomed, increasing by at least five percent per annum,” says Mangwanya.
“In areas where there are high densities, ZimParks is also pursuing the Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCA) initiatives to support wildlife-based sustainable development.”
“We have seen some evidence of wildlife moving to occupy other areas to reduce density-induced pressure in Gonarezhou and also in the Zambezi Valley. However such gains also manifest in increased human wildlife conflicts, and there we need a balanced approach,” he adds.
In an ideal world, local conservationists working to reduce human wildlife conflict believe the loss of human lives should draw the same outrage as that agreed to illegal killings of wildlife.
“The people in Dete will tell you that they rank lower than animals,” says Ncube. “They see boreholes being drilled in the national park and none in the villages. Wildlife has more rights than them,” he adds.