DEALING WITH THE JUMBO PROBLEM
THERE is no doubt that Human-Wildlife Conflicts (HWCs) are triggered by dual oriented population mismanagement scenarios, both of animals and humans interacting on a finite spatial terrestrial and aquatic sphere.
The first one is the overpopulation of animals.
This is of concern in the country and the Zimbabwe Parks and Management Authority (ZPWMA) is seized with the matter.
The second equal weighing fact is the ever sky rocketing human population.
Apart from presenting unprecedented cases of human-animal interfaces, the dichotomous population mismanagement scenario offers diverse opportunities for growth to local communities and the nation at large.
Despite limited financial resources, Zimbabwe is one of the few countries in the world where wildlife population is in abundance, thanks to efficient and effective conservation measures spearhead by the ZPWMA, which is under the directorship of Mr Fulton Mangwanya.
The ever-growing population of animals especially keystone species, African Elephant Loxodonta Africana, has resulted in the loss of vegetation and ultimate shrinking of habitat for the entirety of diverse floral and faunal species.
Without a doubt, the country’s ecological productivity has been greatly impacted by the high numbers of animals in almost every part of the country.
The biggest threat to the survival of elephants and other animals is the loss of habitat and the animals have become a threat unto themselves.
In almost every corner of the country, hardly a day passes without the ZPWMA’s rangers reacting to problem animal control.
ZPWMA and respective Rural District Councils (RDCs) where there is wildlife in coexistence with or in proximity to communities are obliged, as a social responsibility port of call to swiftly react or (re)address human-wildlife conflict reports and cases.
From Tsholotsho, Hwange, Binga, Chipinge, Bikita, Zaka, Mbire to mention a few, rural communities have had to live with the reality of dealing with dangerous animals that include lions, elephants, hyenas, buffaloes among others.
The problem animals pose threats of different magnitude and nature varying from that which are a threat to human life (resulting in either deaths or injuries) to property damage, crop and livestock raiding.
Hwange National Park, with an ecological carrying capacity of 15 000 elephants, is sitting on around 45 000 jumbos and this has resulted in an alarming rate in the loss of natural habitat, mainly mature trees, savanna woodlands and other animal species.
It is no secret that elephants have a tendency of knocking down trees and there are certain bird species such as nesting vultures, white-browed sparrow weaver, nesting ground hornbill among others which can only breed in certain tree heights, compositions, densities and this means their breeding cycle is affected.
Local communities surrounding protected areas have not been spared from the high elephant densities, with human and wildlife conflicts becoming more prominent.
Since the beginning of 2020, human-wildlife conflict has claimed at least 20 people, dozens of others have been permanently disabled while swathes of crops have been destroyed by the menacing animals — especially elephants. In short, thousands of peasant farmers are being impoverished because their crops are destroyed daily, their livestock is killed and property destroyed.
In one of the incidences, a 29-year-old Gokwe woman was killed by an elephant in full view of her mother, some 50 metres from her homestead.
In another incident, a 34-year-old man was knocked down from a motorbike by lions in Nyaminyami.
It is important to note that of the 20 deaths recorded since January 2020, 10 are human-elephant conflicts while the balance is shared amongst other mammals and predators namely, lions, buffalos and crocodiles.
To those families who have lost their loved ones or those who have been injured, the problem of animal overpopulation is real.
To a mother who lost her daughter to an elephant, the problems are real.
To the children who have been orphaned after their father was gored by a buffalo while bathing along a river in Zaka, the problems are real.
The ZPWMA and RDCs, as means of curbing or controlling Human-Wildlife Conflict, have resorted to lethal and non-lethal methods. Non-lethal methods include scaring away the problem animals by lighting fires, use of chilli guns, beating of drums or necessarily making of noise.
Some communities in Tsholotsho and Binga have resorted to the adoption of mobile BOMA or kraal methods to secure their animals or simply spending resources in the construction of more secure stone, pole or steel, brick-and-mortar kraals and fowl runs.
An expensive though effective management option which is available to redress human-wildlife conflict is the capture and translocation of animals from areas of high to areas with low animal populations like what ZPWMA and its partners did in 2018 when 100 elephants were moved from the South East Lowveld (Save Valley, Masvingo) to Rifa in Hurungwe (Mashonaland Central).
The lethal method is limited to elimination or destruction of the problem animal mostly by shooting.
This Problem Animal Control (PAC) method is executed by Professional Hunters (PHs) under the authority of or by ZPWMA and RDC rangers and scouts.
Retaliatory killing or elimination of problem animals is a criminal offence in Zimbabwe. Under normal PAC circumstances, communities benefit from meat handouts of edible species and ivory is taken to the national stockpiles by the appropriate authority.
Although culling is legal in Zimbabwe, the country last did the practice in 1988 and Zimbabwe is battling the ever-increasing population of animals.
Resources permitting, this is another option or no intervention is made as nature will regulate the population through death.
Culling was mainly done for the conservation of elephants themselves and preservation of the habitat, which if destroyed takes time to recover, especially the natural vegetation.
Most countries initiated culling in the 1960s, Uganda did it in 1965, Zambia (1965-69), Kruger National Park (1968) and in Zimbabwe it was done in 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1988.
Zimbabwe culled more than 50 000 elephants between 1965 and 1988.
Globally, elephants are threatened with extinction, but this is a different story in Zimbabwe in particular and Southern Africa in general.
Of the remaining 350 000 elephants in the world, two-thirds are in Southern Africa with the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area commonly known as the KAZA TFCA encompassing Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola accounting for more than 60 percent of jumbos in the region.
On a national scale, Zimbabwe’s major four elephant range areas cover approximately 17 percent of the country’s total land area.
The range covers all land categories which include protected areas, private, forest and some communal lands.
These include the Sebungwe region (Binga communities, Gokwe communities, Matusadonha National Park, Chizarira National Park, Chete Safari Area, Chirisa Safari Area, Sijarira Forestry Area), Matabeleland North West province (Hwange communities, Tsholotsho communities, Victoria Falls communities, Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Park, Kazuma Pan National Park, Matetsi Safari Area, including Deka Safari Area, Ngamo Forestry Area, Sikumi Forestry Area, Fuller Forestry Area among other areas), Save Valley (Gonarezhou National Park, Save Valley Conservancy, Chiredzi community, Chipinge communities) and Mid Zambezi Valley (Dande Safari Area and communities, Doma Safari Area and communities, Hurungwe Safari Area and communities, Kariba community, Charara Safari Area, Mana Pools National Park, Sapi Safari Area, Chewore Safari Area, Makonde community, Kanyemba community, Mbire community). About 26 percent of the country is reserved for animals.
According to the most recent survey, the country’s elephants grew from an estimated 40 000 in 1980 to about 83 000.
In terms of human-wildlife conflict that is exacerbated by the sharp human population growth, there is a need to appreciate that our country’s human population increased from 7 million in 1980 to the current +/-15 million and the land is not expanding.
As such, human encroachment in form of settlement expansion, crop cultivation, livestock grazing, poaching of wildlife resources, mostly triggering a change of land uses are all human-induced activities straddling beyond protected area buffer zones and boundaries, thus posing much pressure on limited space for wildlife activities.
The combination of high elephant densities, climate change and human encroachment, subsistence meat poaching, the proliferation of natural and anthropogenic veld fires has contributed to biodiversity loss in protected areas, hence animals encroaching in human settlements in search of water and food, leading to clashes with desperate rural communities attempting to protect their crops and livestock from the marauding animals.
Poaching for subsistence increases stress levels and competition for food on predators which will ultimately be left with the only option to hunt easy prey or raid livestock in communities.
It is important to note that elephant induced destruction of vegetation and the environment is unnatural and requires human intervention.
Communities who bear the brunt of sharing borders with these animals must also benefit.
Communities must also see these animals as economic opportunities as enshrined in the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) review document.
This is through infrastructure development, construction of schools, clinics, the realisation of cash dividends, meat handouts, opportunity to harvest thatching grass, firewood, sand extraction, building poles from the protected area, opportunities to enjoy nature in the form of tourism, environmental education and creation of employment for the benefit of people whose crops are destroyed and whose relatives are killed and injured.
It is unethical for the authority to allow animals to die due to starvation without the benefit to the remaining herds who need protection from poachers and provision of water.
Only last year, nearly 200 elephants and several other animals succumbed to drought and needless to mention that there was no benefit to both the country and the communities, save for the screaming headlines across the globe, from London to Washington.
Hwange runs on underground water and those eco-friendly boreholes, which are solar-powered, need maintenance.
As it stands, more than US$50 000 worth of solar panels have been stolen in Hwange.
Many thanks go to various local, regional and international conservation partners and conservationists who have come on board with resources to complement ZPWMA’s mandate to preserve and conserve Zimbabwe’s wildlife resources.
Failure to manage elephant populations is detrimental to the country’s ecological productivity and history will judge us harshly.
High densities of elephants in a landscape commonly transform the habitat in which they exist into deserts.
They can impact on the composition, diversity and structure of vegetation.
Scientific research backed by empirical evidence shows that damage caused by elephants on woody vegetation has been recorded in most protected areas in the country, including Gonarezhou and Hwange National Park.
Without a doubt, something needs to be done as a matter of urgency.
Tinashe Farawo is the head of communications at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org