Zimbabwe's elephant challenge W/video
Posted: 03-25-2010

Zimbabwe's elephant challenge
By Haru Mutasa

Zimbabwe's elephant population is once again booming thanks to increased local efforts to combat poaching aided by a worldwide ban on ivory trading.

In 1987, Zimbabwe launched the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire), a community-based sustainable conservation initiative, and designated large areas of the country as protected national parks.

The initiative is designed to simultaneously protect endangered animals such as the elephant and help local communities identify the animals as sources of income.

The majority of Campfire's revenue comes from selling hunting concessions to professional hunters and safari tour operators. The hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot wildlife including elephants, lions, zebras, and buffaloes.

Community proceeds

Daster Chisungo, the chief of a village in the Zambezi Valley near the Zambian border, says he has managed to build a local high school and clinic from the proceeds over the years. The hunters mainly want the head of the animal as a trophy – everything else goes to the community.

The meat and skin of the animal is distributed and each community maintains a system of guidelines on how the money is disseminated.

Although some critics have alleged corruption in the Campfire initiative, officials say the programme has generally been a success with villagers realising the value of having the elephants around – even if their fields are sometimes destroyed.

"Why would I tolerate living or coexisting with an elephant that is so destructive?" says the village chief.

"It destroys our crops, our fields, our tress, our environment. It is because of the value associated with the elephant that makes us coexist with it."

Destroying crops

The Campfire initiative may have benefited communities by providing funding for development projects, but many farmers say they are losing far too many crops and that the situation has become untenable.

Jimmy-Jack Madyirapanze has been farming a patch of land near the Zambian border for most of his life.

He says he is used to living with the elephants – he grew up taunting and chasing them away with stones as a boy - and knows how destructive too many of them in one area can be.

"Those animals are eating our crops, destroying them," he moans.

"You see the footprints over here – they have destroyed my maize crop and now I have nothing to eat."

Disappointed he puts his hoe down, and wipes off the sweat from his forehead; it is almost 40 degrees Celsius and not yet mid-day.

Booming elephant population

In Zimbabwe and southern Africa, elephant populations are rapidly growing
In the 1980s, elephants invading a family's field would have been killed on sight.

But now, angry villagers who are tired of elephants raiding their maize fields call on the animal protection unit to keep the animals away. It is these armed game wardens who decide whether to cull elephants which threaten a local community.

Nevertheless, most countries in Southern Africa, such as Botswana and South Africa, say they now have an elephant population problem. Both elephant and human populations have been booming, thereby creating challenges on land utilisation and a fight for access to water and food resources.

In northern Botswana, for example, local officials have reported that 40 per cent of their annual crops are destroyed by elephant herds.

Zimbabwe's animal population has more than doubled to 100,000 elephants in the past 30 years and national parks officials say the country has the capacity to only accommodate half that number.

The elephants are creating conflict with local villagers and some believe that culling the animals would ensure food stocks are kept safe.

Ivory and controversy

Due to a growth in the ivory export business in the 1970s and 1980s - what later came to be called the ivory wars - the total elephant population of Africa decreased by half; up to one million elephants were killed for their ivory tusks to the point that the endangered animal appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

Hoping to protect elephants from poachers, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989 banned the international trade of ivory, and some Western nations provided assistance to African countries cracking down on local poachers.

But the ban proved difficult to enforce; Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia have in the past decades accumulated a stockpile of ivory gathered through legal efforts.

Zimbabwe, which says it sits on 34 tonnes of ivory - estimated to be worth billions of dollars - stockpiled in a heavily-guarded warehouse, pushed for a downgrading of the ban.

In 1999, Zimbabwe was allowed a singular exemption from the ivory trade ban; in 2007, CITES granted Zimbabwe and other southern African countries the permission to sell 110 tonnes of stockpiled ivory to China and Japan.

In recent years Zimbabwe has been clamouring for a larger lifting of the international convention.

Dispute with Kenya

Still pictures from film footage showing the aftermath of illegal ivory poaching
This has pit Zimbabwe at loggerheads with countries like Kenya, which has seen its elephant population fall to just 30,000.

Kenya wants conservation bodies like CITES to uphold the ban on Zimbabwe and other southern African countries trading in ivory.

Kenyan officials believe that even a partial lifting of the ban would encourages poaching on the African continent as a whole.

Zimbabwean authorities argue that they have too many elephants – because they have managed to protect them from illegal poaching - and they should be allowed to make a profit out of them.

Olivia Mapfute, who works for National Parks and Wildlife in Zimbabwe, has lobbied against Kenya's proposal to uphold the ban on ivory trade.

"Zimbabwe is totally against this ban," she says angrily.

"It is one of the countries legally allowed by CITES to export ivory pieces. If Kenya's proposal goes ahead then Zimbabwe will lose huge inflows of revenue."

Funding development

In 1999, Zimbabwe was allowed to sell to Japan and China ivory worth $500,000, which was fed back into to anti-poaching initiatives and rural development projects say government officials.

Rural communities have managed to build schools, clinics, buy livestock and send their children to school from the proceeds.

Government officials say projects like Campfire have decreased poaching levels and that villagers are now protecting their wildlife because of the money they can make from them.

But critics and environmental groups say poaching is still on the rise in Zimbabwe, especially of the black rhino. Some animals have been de-horned to deter poaching.
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