Has the fear of a foreign tourist being killed by a wild animal led Zimbabwe’s state parks authority to ban visitors walking alone in a national park that is popular with South Africans?
That’s one of the suggestions that emerged this weekend from the local Zambezi Society conservation group in the wake of the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZNPWA)’s insistence that walking without an armed professional ranger will no longer be allowed in the Mana Pools, in the wild north of the country.
“It is understood that there will be a perception that a fatality of a foreign tourist will be damaging for tourism,” said a statement from the society, which says it works to “conserve wildlife and wilderness” in the Zambezi Valley.
The last recorded death of a visitor in the Mana Pools reserve, which is situated nearly 400km from Harare, was in 2010. That was when a Zimbabwean businessman was mauled by a pride of lions as he showered under a tree at Chitake Springs bush camp.
Mana Pools’ unique selling point has for years been that visitors are allowed to walk freely in the park, which is home to the Big Five.
‘It will destroy tourism’
But the state parks authority confirmed on Thursday that it would go ahead with the controversial ban on walking without a ranger, the Zambezi Society said.
The ban has sparked outrage from safari operators and many Mana Pools lovers.
The charge for a ranger has reportedly been set at $25 per day. Those who are caught walking without a guide will have to pay a fine.
The Zambezi Society acknowledged that there had been reports of “shoddy behaviour” by Mana Pools visitors in recent years, including occasions where armed tourism operators had deliberately induced a lion to charge or gone too close to an elephant.
Johnny Rodrigues, head of the independent Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force in Harare told News24 in a telephone interview on Sunday: “I disagree with these totally-unheard of fees… it will destroy tourism.”
“The biggest problem we have is hunting fatalities,” he added.
Tourist fatalities are rare in Zimbabwe. But then, so are tourists.
‘Very few fatalities’
The once-booming tourism industry is still struggling to recover after the crisis years of 2000-2008, when reports of farm invasions by supporters of President Robert Mugabe, alleged rights abuses and food, fuel and money shortages put many international tourists off coming.
The Zambezi Society hinted that the state national parks’ concerns may have been heightened by the disappearance last year of Zimbabwean tourist Zayd Dada, who disappeared in January 2014 when climbing Mount Nyangani in Zimbabwe’s eastern Nyanga district.
Dada, 31, has never been found, reinforcing Mount Nyangani’s reputation as the “mountain that swallows people”.
Five people are reported to have disappeared on the mountain in the 1980s.
After Dada’s disappearance, the ZNPWA banned visitors from walking up Mount Nyangani without a guide and a fully-charged cellphone.
“It is important to… be cautious of allowing problems in one park to lead to over-correction in other parks,” the Zambezi Society said, adding that unescorted walking in Mana Pools had led to “very few fatalities over the decades”.
Not everyone is against the ban. “I totally agree that safety comes first. If a tourist is killed, maimed etc, they are the first to run to the lawyers,” commented Alexia Abnett Trombas on the Zambezi Society’s Facebook page.
One of the society’s suggestions is that unescorted walking should possibly only be allowed for Zimbabwean residents.
“This way if there is an incident it does not attract the same international attention,” the group said.