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Hwange Elephants – Securing their future

Hwange Elephants – Securing their future

Hwange Elephants – Securing their future

Conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts everywhere were greatly alarmed at the headline news in Zimbabwe’s national newspapers that numerous elephant had been poisoned in the lands adjacent to Hwange National Park in September/October. Before accurate and complete information became available, the rumour mill had greatly exaggerated the numbers of dead elephant to catastrophic proportions.

In an effort to assess exactly what the situation was on the ground, Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ) teamed up with ZimParks, the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project and the Forestry Commission, all of whom are custodians of the land where the latest poisonings were reported, and sourced the expertise and resources to undertake an aerial survey.

In the first phase of the operation, 2,187km were flown over Forestry land by Pat Cox with aircraft time sponsored by Ericom Communications. Subsequently, Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) requested that a similar exercise take place over the Park itself, and a further 3,027km were flown, covering a total of some 10,195km2.

Inside the Park, in the extremely remote south west area bordering the Tsholotsho Communal Land and the Botswana border, 84 carcasses were located. “We are confident that there have not been any more than 120 elephant lost [in total], and this compares favourably with what Parks have reported and, while this is serious, we feel the figures quoted by other sources are totally incorrect and exaggerated,” wrote Colin Gillies in an open letter to members of the Matabeleland Branch of Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe.

“We have been very impressed with the very open and refreshing attitude received from Parks and the Minister; it has been a pleasure operating with them and I am confident that we can overcome the current problems. It should be noted that the Minister has also set up an advisory trust of respected and well-known conservationist businessmen to help and advise in Hwange, with the results already being seen [with a consignment of new Landrovers delivered to ZimParks in Hwange].”

Several of the culprits responsible for the poisonings have been found and could face long term jail sentences. In addition, some of the missing tusks have been recovered. With the reports in the media varying between 100 to 500 animals, it is vital that the media report accurately according to the actual findings on the ground. “No one is trying to trivialise what is going on here; the poisonings are a disaster for Zimbabwe and for Zimbabwe’s elephants – and certainly all culprits have not yet been arrested,” said Sharon Pincott, founder of the Presidential Elephant Conservation Project in Hwange, “but sensationalism serves no positive purpose whatsoever.”

Poverty, lack of education regarding the value Hwange National Park holds for its surrounding communities and the country as a whole, as well as lack of involvement of those same communities in conserving the park and benefiting from the tourism dollar, are all contributing factors. To address some of these factors, safari operators have initiated community development programmes which are slowly but surely making an impact. The reach of these programmes now needs to be extended further afield so that all communities surrounding the park are included. Community buy-in and sustainable benefit from tourism and other wildlife-related activities remains key to putting a stop to poaching. Vital to the success of this is the continual growth of tourism through local, regional and international support. This will result in a positive contribution to the economy and job creation which will in turn give the country the resources and ability to manage and protect its wildlife and wilderness areas.

Several operators in Hwange have reported cancellations of bookings because of the poisonings. “It is unlikely that travellers visiting Hwange National Park will be exposed to the poisoning incident, and boycotting the National Park as a stand against the poisonings will not prevent these poachers from striking again,” said Beks Ndlovu from African Bush Camps. “Boycotting travel to the area will only cripple the ability of operators, National Parks and organisations such as WEZ and the Lion Research Project to sustainably continue to do their utmost to protect the wildlife and run successful anti-poaching units and conservation management programmes.”

Safari operators and wildlife researchers met in October to discuss ways in which they can boost efforts to protect Hwange National Park and its wildlife. The result of the meeting is that positive steps are being made to put in place more stringent measures to prevent further incidents, and plans are underway to increase the involvement of the communities surrounding Hwange National Park in the conservation management programmers and further develop the current reach of the community based projects already in place.

The collaboration of National Parks, the safari operators, the private sector, conservation organisations, and the communities surrounding the Park are all important management factors to ensure Hwange National Park's continued existence as one of Africa’s greatest wildlife refuges.

More from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (December 2013)

More from the Zambezi Traveller:
Hwange Destination Profile