EVERY 50 metres or so of driving along any bush track inside Hwange National Park, masses of elephant dung litter the road. The jumbos, now numbering over 40 000, are such a common sight that the massive mammals occasionally break the greenery inquisitively peering at a passing vehicle or simply shuffle away majestically into the foliage irritated by the intrusion.
Hwange National Park is undeniably one of Africa’s largest elephant wildernesses as well as home to the continent’s so-called ‘big five’: the elephant, the black rhino, the lion, the leopard and the buffalo.
It is also a paradise for the rare, the fastest, the graceful, the cunning and the awesome in the form of the wild dog, cheetah, giraffe, hyena and hippopotamus. But this unique savanna paradise is also at the centre of a serious human and wildlife conflict threatening its very existence as people and wild animals compete for dwindling space.
This competition, which also touches on conflicting priorities, has brought huge challenges in wildlife conservation and management for Hwange National Park, a 14 650 square kilometre wildlife estate in western Zimbabwe where some of the world’s largest population of elephants roams. As hundreds of people gathered inside the park to commemorate the inaugural World Wildlife Day (WWD) last week, the conflict threatening the existence of the animal sanctuary hung thick in the air like a London fog.
The WWD, which is celebrated on March 3 annually, came almost five months after 115 elephants were discovered dead inside the park after being poisoned by poachers using cyanide. While the Hwange gathering was a fitting tribute to the world’s largest land mammal, the elephant, which is currently on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)’s endangered species list, it, however, also highlighted the challenges of wildlife management for sustainable development.
“We acknowledge that protection alone without sustainable utilisation is not what we want,” noted the head of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation sub-regional office for southern Africa, Rene Czudek.
“We need to ensure that our wildlife resources are there to help and sustain our people, particularly with regards to food security,” he added. At the centre of wildlife conservation challenges facing not only Hwange but also the country’s entire five million-hectare wildlife estate, are issues of increasing wildlife and human populations that now far exceed carrying capacities; wild fires that destroyed 1 198 square kilometres last year, which roughly represent two percent of national parks land; CITES’ ban on trade in endangered species and their products; and government policies that do not seem to complement each other.
While the Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, expressed concern at the rising human-wildlife conflict in and around the country’s national parks, communities in these areas are increasingly getting frustrated by the marauding wildlife, which are destroying their crops.
The communities now believe that the costs caused by the animal activities now far outweigh the benefits arising from the animal resource as well as other supporting programmes such as those run by the Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE).
CAMPFIRE generates on average US$2 million in net income every year mostly from the lease of hunting rights to commercial safari operators, as well as sales of hides and ivory, tourism leases on communal land and other natural resources management activities. It currently operates in 58 of the country’s 60 districts, promotes rural development by championing local communities as beneficiaries and decision makers over wildlife and other natural resources while generating economic benefits that compliment subsistence farming and improve livelihoods in the marginal districts that are adjacent to wildlife areas.
Kasukuwere has identified corruption, abuse and looting of CAMPFIRE funds as chief causes of increased poaching and encroachments into Zimbabwe’s parks. “Many of our district councils are not accounting for the CAMPFIRE funds. There is a lot of corruption going on. Moneys meant to support and benefit the communities are being diverted by those in charge; either for paying themselves huge salaries or allowances. And I say that must come to a full stop as soon as possible. We want funds that are obtained from CAMPFIRE to change the lives of the majority. We don’t want those funds to change the lives of a minority … Looting of Campfire funds is causing poaching of wildlife,” said Kasukuwere.
According to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZNPWMA), a total of 325 human incursions into Hwange National Park were detected in 2011 alone, resulting in 430 visual contacts and 14 armed contacts with poachers. Four poachers were killed, six were wounded and 221 were arrested. Over 2 300 snares were removed and 35 dogs were killed while 37 pieces of ivory, 22 rifles, four rhino horns and 364 rounds of ammunition were recovered.
Over the past decade or so there has also been serious human encroachment into the parks for cultivation and livestock grazing. Also threatened by the ever rising human encroachments and wild fires is the Presidential Elephant herd comprising of approximately 450 elephants of 18 family groups whose home is Hwange National Park.
The herd, being monitored by a private conservationist, roams around the area west of Main Camp in the Safari Lodge estate, Mabale communal areas and Main Camp area. In an effort to reduce the threat to the park’s valuable wildlife asset, the private sector, through the Zimbabwe Wildlife Trust, recently donated equipment for use by rangers as well as 23 vehicles to fight poaching.
after a local Nhanzwa chief, Hwange National Park was once the royal hunting ground for the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi in the early 19th century.
Set aside as a national park in 1929, Hwange boasts of over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species.
The elephants of Hwange are world famous and their population is one of the largest in the world. The over 40 000 elephants roaming the park, however, now far exceed Hwange National Park’s carrying capacity of less than 20 000 elephants, a situation which has resulted in more and more elephants straying into neighbouring villages where they destroy crops at a time when the country is struggling to produce enough food to feed itself.
While Zimbabwe is one of the world’s best success stories of sustainable wildlife management, it has come with this unintended disadvantage that has been caused by a CITES ban on all international trade on endangered species and their raw products.
ZNPWMA is currently sitting on more than US$15 million worth of ivory stockpiles as well as rhino horn, which the country is struggling to get rid of because CITES prohibits any form of trade in endangered species and products except through certain strict rules that the country is finding difficult to comply with.
One of the requirements is that the country can only export processed ivory. But then Zimbabwe does not have the capacity to do it since the country is grappling with poor investment inflows and declining capacity utilisation in industry. Zimbabwe is also only allowed to conduct quarterly sales of its tusks and has only managed to sell three times since 2007.
CITES also allows the country to sell its elephants hides locally, export live elephants to scientifically approved destinations as well as use elephant hair. However, both the local and international takers for the animals and their products have been few and far in between.
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