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How chaotic land reform is killing Zim’s once pristine conservation zone

news in depth:BY OSCAR NKALA

For decades, Gwayi resident Gavin Maseko grazed his cattle up and down the Gwayi River, skirting the south-eastern edges of the giant Hwange National Park and successfully avoiding conflict with lions, hyenas, cheetahs and even elephants.

A native Nambya citizen of the Gwayi Valley, Maseko is a community leader in the wildlife-endowed land that comprises the Kana Block Hunting Concession and what remains of the once prestigious Gwayi Intensive Conservation Area.

The Gwayi ICA is a pristine habitat, which until 2003 boasted of all the big five in addition to an assortment of plains game.

Being a prime component of the Hwange National Park complex, the Gwayi ICA was a natural choice for inclusion when Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Namibia set up the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) in 2006.

But instead of getting a boost from inclusion as a major KAZA-TFCA component area, the Gwayi ICA has been reduced to a wasteland, deformed by human settlement and fragmented by deforestation.

The problem started when former president Robert Mugabe resettled his supporters in previously-white owned farms and conservancies in the Gwayi Valley area. 

Delivered under a programme known as “wildlife-based land reform”, human settlement in the Gwayi ICA component of the KAZA-TFCA was justified as necessary to ensure equitable sharing of land resources between the minority white settlers and the majority black indigenous population.

However, the mass influx of humans has created new problems including deforestation-driven habitat fragmentation and a magnified human-wildlife conflict.

“Nowadays, cattle don’t graze unattended along the Gwayi because they may run into lions and hyenas. “Wild animals have been displaced by human settlements.

The few that survived poaching have scattered to avoid human contact,” Maseko said.

“That has escalated conflict as there are more people than animals in wildlife areas today.

“We are plundering the forests for charcoal and clearing land to set up farms.

“Illegal logging and mining by Chinese firms are consuming the land and polluting the environment.”

Environmental plunder leading to wildlife habitat fragmentation by resettled people in the Gwayi ICA is identified as a problem in a new research paper published by Donald Mlambo and M. Montana of the National University of Science and Technology.

Published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology in November 2019, the paper entitled “Environmental awareness and biodiversity conservation among resettled communal farmers in Gwayi Valley Conservation Area, Zimbabwe” evaluated environmental awareness levels in three resettled communities on Hangano Ranch, Gwayi and the Kana Block.

Among the major findings, the researchers said community behaviour and actions that caused biodiversity losses were higher and more prevalent in Gwayi and Kana than in Hangano Ranch.

“We used focus group discussions, key informant interviews and structured interviews with 95 respondents in the selected communities from November 2016 to April 2017.

“Through raising public awareness, a number of conservation groups were established including fire and hunting committees, anti-poaching teams and environmental resource monitors.

“While these groups were found to be either inactive or less effective in Gwayi and Karna, all were found to be very active and effective in Hangano.

“Similarly, community behaviour and actions that caused biodiversity loss like indiscriminate cutting of trees, poaching, stream-bank cultivation, fishing in rivers with nets and use of sledges were much reduced in Hangano than in Gwayi and Karna,”the researchers said.

They concluded that frequent environmental awareness campaigns could play a critical role in promoting biodiversity conservation in Hangano.

In conclusion, the researchers said Zimbabwe should invest more in public awareness campaigns in order to make substantial conservation gains.

Habitat fragmentation in the Gwayi component of the KAZA-TFCA has escalated with the adoption of new land uses, which are incompatible with environmental conservation.

According to figures from the Ministry of Mines, more than 20 coal prospecting licences have been issued since 2010.

Of these, at least five are already operating in the Hwange-Dete-Gwayi complex.

Some of the companies are setting up coal-fired power generation stations.

According to Zimbabwe’s Fifth Report to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, coal mining is adversely impacting on the Hwange and Mana Pools ecosystems.

“Mineral exploration in protected areas such as Hwange and Mana Pools has led to land use conflicts with conservancies.

“For example, conservancy owners are lobbying government to address the harmful effects of mining on wildlife movements and breeding in the Gwayi Valley Conservancy.

“Other concerns relate to potential biodiversity loss caused by permanent transformation of landscapes due to open-cast mining. Open-cast mining in the Gwayi and Shangani Rivers system has triggered fears of pollution and siltation of waterways, increased and easier access for poachers and expanding encroachment of human populations into undisturbed habitats,” the report stated.

Mining and habitat fragmentation as a result of human encroachment are not the only existential threats to the KAZA-TFCA.

New research shows that national animal disease management policies and practices among member states are negatively affecting the progress of the TFCA.

In a report entitled, Large Scale Conservation Planning and Priorities for the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area prepared for Conservation International in 2008, researcher David H. Cummings identified the disease control strategies likely to affect the implementation of the KAZA-TFCA dream.

“Disease control strategies for livestock have had major impacts on land-use and conservation in southern Africa and in the five KAZA countries during the last century. 

“The livestock sector has been heavily subsidised in the provision of support services and in marketing and pricing structures. 

“For those countries that have had access to export markets to Europe (Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe) there have been further subsidies in terms of market prices for beef and aid in the provision of veterinary and other services to the beef industry.

“These perverse incentives have resulted in land uses being distorted in favour of beef production.

“By the same token, wildlife has been viewed as the primary reservoir of several of the important livestock diseases with the result that until recently, the view that “one cannot farm in a zoo” prevailed.

“The earlier belief that livestock production was threatened by the presence of wildlife resulted in long term game elimination programmes, particularly in relation to the tsetse fly. 

“For example, game elimination programmes started in the Sebungwe region in Zimbabwe in 1919 and continued up to the 1970s when they were replaced by insecticide spraying programmes, and later by the use of odour baited traps or ‘targets’, the report noted.

The KAZA-TFCA tsetse fly zone covers most of western Zambia, including the Kafue National Park, extends into the Luiana Game Reserve in Angola, the Linyanti National Park in Namibia, the Okavango Delta area of Botswana and the Sebungwe area of the Lower Zambezi in Zimbabwe.

KAZA-TFCA host nation Botswana is largely partitioned by game fences to control the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), while Namibia maintains a single fence that cuts the country in two, running from the eastern border with Botswana to the Altlantic Ocean coast in the west.

In Zimbabwe, wildlife cordon fences have, since the 1960s, isolated sections of the Hwange-Matetsi complex while selective game elimination corridors have existed in the Sebungwe escarpment.

“The fences interrupted large mammal migration routes and contributed to major declines in migratory species such as wildebeest, zebra and hartebeest.

“Patterns of fencing established to control diseases in livestock populations that are not associated in any direct way with the KAZA TFCA, will likely continue to impact on KAZA in the future and will almost certainly have implications for (wildlife migration and dispersal) corridors, adaptive strategies in the face of climate change and in establishing linkages between the centre and outlying components of the TFCA,” the report stated.

The most endemic zoonotic diseases that threaten human and wildlife populations in the KAZA include contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, bovine tubercolosis, rift valley fever, rabies, trypanosomiasis, echinococcosis and cystercercosis.

More disease control fences are expected to go up in KAZA in the interim. In his state of the nation 2019 report, President Mokgweetsi Masisi said Botswana will in 2020 resuscitate and re-align the Makgadikgadi game proof fence in line with the new National Elephant Action Plan.

The human population in the Zambian, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwean components of KAZA is expected to explode by 2050, putting massive pressure on natural resources.

Human population growth is expected to drive land-use changes, primarily through the transformation of land for livestock and crop production.

Within KAZA, human population growth is expected in the Caprivi Strip, Mukwe along the Kavango River in Angola, Bwabwata National Park in Namibia, the Barotse floodplain in Zambia and the Sebungwe area of Zimbabwe.

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