I recently received an email from the Britain-Zimbabwe Society list that had the subject line: PLEASE VOTE: URGENT SUPPORT FOR ZIMBABWE ELEPHANTS NEEDED – YOUR VOTE CAN HELP THIS ENDANGERED HERD. Yes it was in capitals. I read on. There were photos of dead elephants and a passionate plea to save the herd. And where was this? In the Chiredzi River Conservancy, where I had been a few weeks before.
The conflict between people and wildlife, always a hot topic in Zimbabwe, is accelerating, as more and more people come onto what was previously ‘white-owned’ land through the land reform. Elephants, lions and people just do not mix. This is presenting many dilemmas for conservationists, national parks rangers and ministry of lands officials alike. In the 1990s large areas of former ranch land were combined in the southeast lowveld to form conservancies. Fences were pulled down and the world’s largest continuous private game reserves were formed. Save Valley Conservancy alone covers 3200 square km. These offered lucrative business opportunities, and investment from within and outside Zimbabwe flowed. Hunting opportunities, high-end safari lodges and game farming flourished. The argument was that the lowveld ecology was not suited to cattle ranching, which had been hit by economic problems combined with a devastating drought in the early 1990s. Whether it was to be cattle, wildlife, both or neither was a hot debate in the 1990s, and continued post land reform.
Privately, game ranchers admitted that conservancies were a better protection against land reform than individual ranches. Concessions to local communities surrounding these areas were made, and various ‘community outreach’ schemes and CAMPFIRE concessions were brokered. These were small sops in the bigger scale of the economic ventures concerned, but for a while these seemed to offer some protection, and deals were made with key headmen, chief and local leaders. Even grander schemes were proposed under the aegis of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, where southern Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa and Gonarezhou National Park and the Conservancies in Zimbabwe were to be connected in one massive sweep of conservation estate. If the hype was to be believed, this was to bring great riches – for the national economy and for local communities alike, and was to revitalise the tourism economy of the country.
Certainly the lobbying of the conservation groups seemed to work, and the conservancies were seen to be outside ‘fast-track’ land reform. Instead of being overseen by the lands ministry the ministry of environment was the government authority. Even the president gave his backing. But on the grounds things looked different. In 2000, to great outcry in the national and international press, the conservancies were invaded. This process has continued, with many areas now being farmed, and wildlife, now seen as a pest, hunted out. This has brought outrage from many quarters. But others pose the question bluntly: should it be animals or people who have the priority? This traditional battle between elite (often white) conservation hunting interests and poor local livelihood needs has been complicated by another set of interests in these areas. Smelling a business opportunity, a series of politically well-connected ‘partners’ have been imposed on the existing conservancy owners, as part of a supposed ‘indigenisation’ programme. The reported roll call of those involved lists the top echelons of the political-military elite, with a number of local leaders and well positioned chiefs offered a slice too. Add into this mix some fairly ruthless poaching syndicates who have made use of the uncertainty allegedly to create alliances between political-military figures, Asian buyers and local hunting groups. This has all added further complications to the already tense stand-off in the conservation areas of the lowveld.
The elephants who we were urged to vote for through the BZS site sit in the middle of this political tussle over resource access and control. Their watering holes are now being used by cattle. Their territories are increasingly being farmed. And they are being shot and snared by local people who regard them as pests, or valuable for the illegal ivory trade. The land on which the elephants roam is contested, between the ‘owners’ and the new ‘business partners’. And confusion between government departments and local government authorities over who has jurisdiction over what just adds to the complexity.
The lowveld is a site of ongoing contestation over resources. Wildlife is at the centre of this, as an important economic asset at the centre of a once booming but highly elite hunting and tourism industry. The elephants, unfortunately, are stuck in the middle of this tussle for control.