Human-wildlife conflict rages as govt watches

MUTARE - As wrangling between conservationists and villagers over why the perimeter fence around Save Valley Conservancy (SVC) no longer exists, the human-wildlife conflict along the nature reserve is taking a huge toll on Chipinge’s rural agricultural economy.

Beyond loss of livestock and crops, lives are being lost with the conflicts dragging despairingly into an uncertain future.

In the face of government inaction, villagers here feel as if they are nothing more than fictional characters in a horror movie.

Fate now presides over who lives and who dies at the hands of animals straying from the adjacent SVC.

Unlike some game reserves where animals are confined to smaller spaces and well-habituated to humans, the animals in the conservancy are wild.

Rising early to go to the fields is a gamble in Chipangayi as run-ins with buffaloes have become common, resulting in two deaths recently.

“Lions are better. Buffaloes move during the day and will not hesitate to attack so they are a direct threat to our lives and our crops. We risk running into them as we rise early to go to our fields each morning.

“Our lives are now just like a bad movie. People get killed and that’s it. Nothing will be done.

“Life is supposed to go on for those that remain as if nothing happened,” Tinotenda Mangezi says mournfully.

Feared after buffaloes are elephants because of their potential to harm locals as well as the extensive danger they are to irrigation infrastructure.

“We rank elephants second because they too are a bigger threat to human life than even lions. They also leave a trail of destruction each time they stray into these communal areas.

“Elephants eat tonnes of food and can destroy a farmer’s livelihood in one night and even a small herd can destroy an entire village’s field.

They often destroy canals and disrupt our irrigation facilities causing huge losses,” Lloyd Chigumira, an agronomist who farms in Middle Sabi, said.

Agriculture is the backbone of these poor communities. The small fields they have and small livestock are essential to feed, clothe and educate families.

Then there are lions.

They are only ranked third by locals because they do not pose such a huge threat to human life as buffaloes and elephants.

“They have not killed many people here except a small boy in the Gudo area. Otherwise because they are mostly nocturnal and seem to avoid human settlements, they are only a threat to livestock,” Mangezi said.

And their assault on the local herd has been devastating. After human life, cattle have been the biggest losers in the on-going human-wildlife conflict along the Save River.

“In Mutema, people have long begun to harvest firewood from their empty kraals. Lions would kill an average over four head of cattle each night in the past year,” Isaac Ziwenjere a former Chipinge councillor said.

This represents a huge assault on locals’ unit of wealth. Those kraals represent family banks as cattle are often sold off for lump sum amounts to cover pressing financial needs like covering hospital bills and school fees.

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) confirmed on their website that the lions are now even killing cattle that are penned.

“What concerns ZimParks about such attacks is that the owner of the cattle had made every effort to pen his cattle and the lions could not resist the temptation. Predators such as lions, hyenas and cheetahs are devising new hunting areas opting to attack softer targets,” it acknowledged.

But locals are no longer taking it lying down.

Three lions that had caused havoc in Chipinge killing cattle were this year poisoned by irate villagers in Muchaiyana Village.

The lions which escaped SVC had killed hundreds of cattle in Goko, Charuma, Taona, Gwama, Nyunga and Musani, Chibuwe, Masimbe, Gumira, Maronga and Middle Sabi.

Ward 20 councillor Charles Mugidho confirmed that the big cats are a menace in the area.

“The predators were killing at least two to four cattle per day in areas along Save River since last year,” said Mugidho.

Locals are bitter at what they feel is a lack of regard for their welfare by both government and SVC owners and feel very vulnerable.

“There is no sense of security at all. About three people have been killed by wildlife in the past few years. Zimbabwe National Parks are not helping to protect us. They are the custodians of wildlife. They are doing anything at all and they are not even giving feedback. Parks officials and our traditional leaders need to meet over these issues,” Mangezi said.

But both government and SVC which also has government shareholding have no remorse for the villagers.

Government is blaming communities of tearing down the reserve’s perimeter fence to gain access for their poaching activities something locals vehemently dispute.

“That fence was taken down by floods after the owners of the reserve moved it too close to Save River with some parts even running on the islands on the river because they wanted the animals to access water from the river after they failed to maintain some of the dams that they used to have within the reserve,” Ziwenjere said.

Former Chipinge district administrator Edgars Seenza says the long-running conflict can only be resolved by erecting an electric perimeter fence.

“The solution lies on re-establishing the fence on the conservancy. The electric fence is the only solution and that is what is being planned,” Seenza said.

There are, however, disputes on who is supposed to fund the process with government demanding that villagers contribute 50 percent of the costs.

“When we approach the Parks and Wildlife department, they accuse us of vandalising the security fence and they want us to contribute 50 percent to buy the security fence.

“The villagers cannot afford to do that. We are also disputing the allegation that we are the ones who vandalised the security fence there,” Ziwenjere said.

The former councillor said laying the blame on villagers was only a scapegoat as they want to avoid taking responsibility for their failings.

“They are only saying this as an excuse for not doing their job and are probably afraid of being sued. In some sections, the fence is on the ground,” the former councillor said.

This is an opinion many locals hold. Mangezi said it was unimaginable that poaching alone could be blamed for such extensive damage to the fence.

“Poaching is a lifelong problem and you can’t have an entire village of poachers. Poachers are well-known even by the police and they do not have a problem with the fence, even if it was electric. They would simply dig their way in like they do elsewhere.

“If they are to come to us with that proposal we would not comply. They are the ones profiting from keeping wildlife and we cannot pay for their commercial enterprise.

“We should even consider suing them for over the losses their wildlife is causing us,” Mangezi said.

Mangezi said they were only being hamstrung from suing SVC because they did not have resources to engage lawyers.

ZimParks ranger Dudzai Manyau confirmed that government felt the fence was brought down by villagers.

SVC blames its loss of control of the entire conservancy to the 2000-1 fast track land reform programme which resulted in approximately 33 percent of the game reserve being settled by subsistence farmers and about 80km of perimeter fencing being removed.

“The government has since made the decision to retain conservancies for wildlife production, but the partial settlement of SVC remains for now, resulting in a mosaic of human habitation and wildlife habitat.

This mosaic creates conditions conducive to intense human-wildlife conflict, illegal hunting and habitat destruction: essentially, a microcosm of the key conservation threats facing wildlife in Africa,” it says on its website.

SVC is one of the largest private game reserves in Africa. Located in the Southeastern lowveld of Zimbabwe, bordering on the Save River on its eastern side, the conservancy comprises 750 000 acres of diverse wildlife habitat.

The SVC consists of privately-owned, government-owned, and community-owned properties that are aligned under a Constitution to manage animal populations on a landscape scale.

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