Editorial Comment: Wildlife, human conflict needs better solutions

The growing conflict between human activity and wildlife, that has seen at least 10 people killed by elephants in Mbire alone this year plus deaths and injuries in the Kariba area from elephant and buffalo attacks and destruction of crops near wildlife areas has a range of sources.

First farmers are using their land better, so there are more crops to raid and more likelihood that a farmer and an elephant will meet. 

Secondly, and more critically, ZimParks have noticed rising populations of many species, partly because they are doing their job better, partly because legal hunting has diminished and partly because animal populations do rise when climate conditions improve.

The problem of both rising numbers of wildlife and of human-animal conflict has been made worse by the difficulties of implementing and using the Campfire programme, deliberately designed to benefit the communities that have to bear the cost of wildlife conflict, allowing them to profit from their wildlife and so ensure protection.

One serious area of concern to most countries in Southern Africa is the determination of many in countries far away to try and ensure total protection of elephants with zero legal hunting and zero use of products generated from that legal hunting. 

The reason is regrettable. Many elephant populations in Africa have been hard hit by poaching, with the smaller species of African elephant, the forest elephant, now critically endangered over much of its range. 

Even the African bush elephant, with its far greater numbers, has been hammered by poachers in vast swathes of its range, but Southern Africa generally has been able to offer much better protection and while there is some poaching this is almost minimal.

The result is that in Zimbabwe, Botswana and other countries the elephant population continues to rise and has in fact risen to levels that cannot be sustained by the ecology. 

We are moving fast to a situation where there could be a major collapse in numbers because there simply will not be enough food to eat.

It is worth remembering that unlike the mammoths and other elephant species that were wiped out when humans entered their range, humans still just armed with stone tipped spears, the African elephant evolved with humans and human ancestors as basically its main predator. 

A balance of nature in Africa requires hunting of elephants, and while poachers do this in other parts, and sometimes do it far too successfully, in Southern Africa it will require either culling or controlled hunting.

When Campfire was introduced in the 1980s it was seen as a major advance, trusting local communities, working through plans presented by their rural district council in collaboration with ZimParks, and using the technical assistance of wildlife experts, to preserve their wildlife because they were an economic asset.

Campfire had a hunting component. The hunting licences came from ZimParks, with the numbers carefully worked out, and the hunting industry was strictly monitored and controlled by ZimParks. 

It was definitely not a free for all. One major area of income for communities was the leasing of hunting rights to a hunting business, a safari operator as they are called, so the community obtained a quintuple benefit: cash from the lease, a share of the licence fees, jobs, meat supplies since most hunters wanted trophies rather than vast amounts of fresh meat, and fewer invasions of their fields.

Campfire became a lot less profitable following growing global action over elephants, where experts in Europe were given a better audience than experts in Southern Africa.

And now, like most of the sectors associated with tourism, it has been heavily hit by Covid-19. The result is not just loss of income, but a great deal more conflict.

At present the communities are still on board. No one is starting their own hunting without licences; and no one is even suggesting this. Instead everyone calls in ZimParks. The problem, as the farmers recognise, is that the wild animals don not just stand still waiting for ZimParks to arrive; they move around and have to be found again, a long process at times.

Wildlife experts know the solutions, but applying them requires debate and requires ways to make people outside Africa see wildlife as a resource. 

There is a tendency to see Africa as some huge giant game reserve, with a few local people adding picturesque scenes rather than as families and communities that have to bear the cost of wildlife and need to win the rewards.

ZimParks want a new stress on Campfire, but the experts must also assist the councils and communities in figuring out new paths where Campfire can go, since a lot of the earlier paths are now blocked.

What is becoming growingly intolerable is a rising death toll, and a rising destruction of crops, because of the growing conflict with very little compensation or benefit.

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