Feature: When good conservation practices become a curse

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Elephants

BY PROBLEM MASAU
SCATTERED tree branches and twigs block a gravel road in Hwange National Park making it near impossible for even a tough all-terrain vehicle to pass.

“It’s the elephants,” Tinashe Farawo, ZimParks spokesperson explains, adding: “An elephant is a destructive animal by nature.”

Just two 200 metres away, a bull elephant  separated from its herd charges towards the vehicle carrying a group of journalists and one of the photojournalists tries to get an opportune lifetime shot.

“In the jungle, humans are just like flies. Once an elephant charges at you, you cannot defend yourself. Please don’t provoke the animal,” Farawo cautions.

“These are wild animals, you cannot predict their behaviour. There are many people who have been trampled by elephants.”

He says Hwange National Park has a carrying capacity of 15 000 elephants, but because of the country’s good conservation practices, the authority estimates that there are now more than 45 000 jumbos in the park.

“We last had our animal census a few years ago and we are planning to have another one later this year. Animal census is usually done during the dry season when there are few watering holes left and the vegetation is no longer thick,” Farawo adds.

Zimbabwe has more than 90 000 elephants in all its national parks, double its carrying capacity of just 40 000. The country has the world’s second largest elephant population.

Adult elephants are known to consume up to 200kg of plant matter in a single day, and when forage is limited, as it usually is, they often come into conflict with other animal species, as well as people, competing for same scarce resources.

In addition to tree loss, elephants have been blamed for breaking the park’s boundary fences and wreaking havoc on neighbouring villages, destroying crops.

The broken fences also allow species like buffalo to leave the park, some carrying foot and mouth and bovine tuberculosis which infects livestock, negatively impacting on the overall national economy in the process.

Zimbabwe is in serious dilemma on what to do with a growing elephant population. The country is currently also sitting on about 100 tonnes of ivory worth close to US$500 000. The tasks cannot be traded because of international ban on the sale of ivory.

Zimbabwe will this month host a 14-member States elephant conference where African ministers seek to have one voice in the fight to push for the sale of elephant products, a position that many European countries have been blocking for years under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or simply Cites.

The conference will be held from May 23 to 26.

Environment, Tourism and Hospitality deputy minister Babra Rwodzi told NewsDay that Southern African Development Community countries will be joined by Kenya at the conference.

“We only have a capacity of having 40 000 elephants, but because we have an excellent conservation programme, the herd has grown to 90 000 and it’s causing problems,” Rwodzi said.

Under Cites Zimbabwe is only allowed to trade its elephant products with China and Japan. A Cites, meeting is scheduled for Panama in November this year where countries without problems of ballooning elephant population will almost certainly push for a total ban on the sale of elephant products.

All African elephants are on Cites’ Appendix I list of endangered species, except for Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, whose populations are in Appendix II. Appendix I-listed species are strictly prohibited from being traded commercially on the international market. Southern Africa hosts half of the 400 000 elephants left in the world, but major decisions on wildlife governance are often made by countries without endangered wildlife. Africa Wildlife Foundation Zimbabwe director Olivia Mafute said there was need for African countries to speak with one voice because the continent was not getting enough benefits from its elephant population.

“Cites is restricting trade. And when people don’t benefit, people don’t see the value of wildlife conservation. It is sad that a lot of decisions are made by people who have never seen an elephant,” Mafute said.

“This is a resource that we have as Africa. It is sad Africa is not being allowed to trade in ivory. We need that common voice, that common vision to advance Africa’s conservation agenda,” he added.

While Westerners sit in air-conditioned conference rooms deciding what to do with Africa’s elephant population, Tinarwo Maimba, a Siakobvu villager in Mashonaland West province continues to bear the brunt of an increasing elephant population.

“We take turns to chase away elephants, warthogs and baboons. These animals continue to destroy our crops and we cannot do anything about it. We did not harvest anything because of wildlife last season,” said Maimba.