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Tsholotsho villagers’ efforts to defeat hunger in a drought year are being trampled on by elephants that are destroying crops.
The pillaging wild animals, mostly elephants, from the neighbouring Hwange National Park destroy villagers’ property, eat their crops and trample on them as they fight for space with human beings.
Occasionally, an unfortunate villager is killed or maimed. To counter the threat of elephants and other wild animals, villagers have taken to guarding their fields.
James Sibanda, from Mlevu area who is part of the team guarding the fields says they use fire and dogs to keep wild animals away.
“We’ve elephants, buffaloes and hyenas born outside the park. They’ve never been inside the national park. There are more than 50 such elephants. We’ve to guard our fields in groups of five to keep these and other animals from the park away from our crops.
“We’ve dogs and we also light a fire to help scare away the animals. We light the fire at the entry point favoured by the animals when coming from the park,” he said.
Villagers are equally afraid of buffaloes which attack them at times and bring diseases like anthrax and foot and mouth to their cattle. Lions and hyenas pose a different danger as they target livestock.
Tsholotsho’s Headman Mlevu, 81, who lives only 7km away from the game park’s boundary fence, says the marauding animals are adding anguish to the pain of hunger.
“It’s painful that we’re facing one of the severest droughts in years but we keep losing the few crops we’ve to elephants.
“We’ve watermelons, maize and small grain like sorghum in the fields. Elephants enjoy the water melons a lot. Hyenas and lions also target our livestock,” he said.
Tsholotsho’s local leadership imposed “curfews” in certain areas frequented by wild animals to protect human life.
Headman Mlevu blames the collapsed Hwange National Park fence for the villagers’ problems.
“Animals invade our villages with ease because the boundary fence was vandalised. We report these cases but no action is taken. A few weeks ago, Parks (and Wildlife Management Authority) people were here. They promised to re-erect the fence.
Many people are injured by the animals and at times some are killed. Fortunately, in my area no person has been killed by animals so far,” he said.
Villagers are discovering the hard way how costly it is to share a border with the biggest animal sanctuary in the country. Small game like kudu, impala and wildebeest and a variety of bird species also target their small grain.
Hwange National Park has 44,000 jumbos, more than half of the elephant’s estimated national population, according to an aerial count done in 2014 by Elephants Without Borders. Zimbabwe’s elephant population of over 83,000 is more than double the country’s carrying capacity.
The Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire) once created a buffer zone between the boundary fence and the villages around 1995 to protect people and their domestic animals.
Headman Mlevu says the fence was solar electrified and council workers would patrol the area.
“Council then withdrew its workers in 2000 leaving the fence and solar panels at the mercy of thieves. Thieves wasted no time in vandalising the solar panels, fence and poles,” he said.
The community leader who arrived in Tsholotsho as a six-year-old back in 1941 says villagers need to find a way of co-existing with the wild animals as was the case in the past. He says the human-animal conflict was a fairly new challenge.
“Wild animals have always been here, as far as I can remember, but they were not this destructive. People are also worsening the situation by settling in areas close to the park,” he said.
Campfire is helping communities, he said, albeit in a limited way.
Locals say elephants stray for about 120km from the game park, moving in groups of hundreds, fifties and twenties. The larger the group, they say, the more dangerous the animals become.
Villagers want Campfire to increase their quota of problem elephants they can kill per concession as compensation for the damage and threat to life.
“If we kill more of troublesome elephants we’ll reduce the danger they pose. Campfire hasn’t done much for us. They promised us benches for our school, Mcetshwa Primary, but we’re yet to receive them.
“We’re not seeing the benefits of the animal quota system at household level. We should be allowed to have a say in dealing with the animals that affect our lives,” says Methuseli Ncube, 51, of Tsholotsho’s Ward 5.
Campfire is a community-based natural resource management programme in which rural councils, on behalf of communities on communal land, are granted the authority to market access to wildlife in their district to safari operators.
The councils pay the communities a dividend according to an agreed formula.
Wildlife players say the 14,650km2 Hwange National Park is overpopulated as it can ideally sustain an elephant population of about 14,000.
“There should be means of thinning the population. The question is how to do this. Ideally, there should be one elephant per square kilometre for all wildlife to flourish.
“A large elephant population disturbs biodiversity, that is, flora and fauna. Small game will starve,” said Charles Ndlovu of Wilderness Concession within Hwange National Park.
Jumbos are also causing problems in Hwange District where they target crops like sorghum in the fields and beans in gardens. The villagers are also losing livestock to lions and hyenas.
Chief Wange says Parks and Campfire were aware of the problem but were taking no action. He says the latter was also failing to initiate development in the district.
The story is, however, different in Tsholotsho where the leadership is full of praise for Campfire.
“Compared to some NGOs who operate here, Campfire is far better. It avails 60 percent of the proceeds to the people directly. All chiefs are deeply involved in Campfire projects. Chiefs’ cars are even fixed using Campfire funds.
“Community projects are funded by Campfire,” said Tsholotsho Council’s Finance chairperson, Clr Patrick Ngwenya.
The district remains worried by the danger posed by the animals to communities.
Tsholotsho is expecting its elephant hunting quota per concession to be increased as a way of reducing the problems the animal pose.
Council chairperson Clr Alois Ndebele says the elephants from Hwange National Park are a problem especially in wards 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and parts of Ward 5 that are close to the game park.
“We want the quota increased from 11 or 12 elephants per concession to at least 20 per concession. We want to benefit from the elephants and we also want the animals to benefit from us.
“We’ll construct dams and sink wells, drill boreholes and set up water points at the national park border. We want to re-erect the boundary fence. Villagers will also benefit by having their own independent water sources,” said Clr Ndebele.
Tsholotsho RDC chief executive officer Themba Moyo says the district’s conservation aspect is lacking.
“That’s why we want our quota increased. A lot needs to be done on environmental management. We want scoopers and water rigs and fire tenders for the town and rural communities.
“We need an ambulance for Campfire wards. The fire and ambulance department will attend to veld fires and those injured by wild animals. We’ve opened sub-offices in Pumula, Chefunye and Sipepa to bring our services close to the people.
“We want to open more in Dlamini. People pay levies and compile reports on problem animals. The local authority, Campfire and the District Administrator’s office always help out at such times of humanitarian disasters caused by wildlife attacks,” he said.
Campfire director, Charles Jonga, says traditional leaders who portray his organisation as a failed project are insincere.
He says Campfire was doing a lot to develop rural communities despite the challenges it faced.
“There’s no programme that allocates more resources to communities than Campfire. Tsholotsho is allocating 60 percent to villages.
“There are also suggestions that communities must benefit through cash from wildlife resources at household level, even though they prefer collective social and infrastructure projects.
“Instructively, even Community Share Ownership Trusts that have been established on the basis of Campfire principles, and generate millions, don’t disburse cash to households,” said Jonga.
He says Campfire has rolled a programme of training villagers to ward off wild animals in Chief Siposo’s area as part of reducing the wildlife/human conflict. The project is being funded by the World Bank and coordinated by Worldwide Fund for Nature, Zimbabwe country office.
Jonga says Hwange District is different from Tsholotsho as it has limited hunting areas for the many wards yet problem animals were all over the district.
“We’ve about 60,000 people who expect to benefit from five elephants hunted in one ward, Sidinda. There is need to open more land for wildlife in the right areas.
“We’re now fighting a war with animal activists who want us to stop hunting.
“At the Cites meeting in South Africa, we will sell what we’re doing for communities against what other people are saying we’re doing,” he said.
Animal conservationist, Johnny Rodrigues says the animal problems in villages were mainly caused by corrupt game rangers who use wild animals to enrich themselves.
He says culling elephants will not end the human/wildlife conflict. “This is all about mismanagement. Let’s promote eco-tourism. Ecotourism will generate more money to run the parks but at the moment, it’s not. “Culling creates problems. Game rangers should start patrols, which at the moment they aren’t doing.
“They drive luxury cars at the expense of villagers who should be benefiting from the animals. Everything to the rangers is kill, kill, kill,” said Rodrigues.
President Mugabe said Zimbabwe abounded with ivory and the government would ensure it benefits everyone.
“We’ve got elephants and they carry ivory and I want that ivory to benefit Zimbabwe.
“So I’ll comply with the rules set for us to trade in ivory,” he told Japanese journalists when he visited their country in March.