Harare — FIFTY-FOUR-year-old widow, Loice Manhede leads her two children along a footpath as they wander through the expansive savanna grassland seemingly confused and confounded.
As they approach a dense enclave of shrubs a strong stench engulfs them and they suddenly come to a halt.
The woman walks cautiously towards the shrubs, her facial expressions change to shock and dismay. She is very disturbed by what she has seen.
It is a carcass of a cow.
Mrs Manhede is one in the thousands of people in Masvingo province, who are now looking to the heavens for an answer to stocktheft that has caused a good many sleepless nights.
Cattle theft has reached unprecedented levels in Masvingo threatening the restocking programme, which was introduced by the government to replenish the beef herd depleted by intermittent droughts that have rocked the province since 1992.
The province lost about 90 percent of its cattle herd during the 1992 drought and successive droughts since then had been frustrating efforts to restock.
However, a new nemesis in the name of stocktheft is exacerbating the plight of farmers threatening to undo all the efforts to restock that had been embarked on, in the aftermath of the ravaging droughts of 1992 and 1997.
The total stock lost to thieves in the province last year alone is 7 291 beasts worth a staggering $142 million (at last year's price) and police managed to recover 2 031 animals worth $88 million.
Old and newly resettled farmers in most parts of the province have continued to lose cattle to rustlers whose activities threaten to thwart efforts to beef up the national herd.
The first four months of this year have, so far, seen 1 258 cattle worth $107 million being stolen. And although police have managed to recover 330 beasts worth $31 million, indications are that the cancer is still far from being contained.
The figures may seem lower compared to last year during the same period when 1 394 beasts valued at $27 million, but the value of cattle has since trebled because of the high beef demand.
Areas like Basera and Chatsworth in Masvingo East continue to record cattle loses to thieves who are possibly lured by the high demand of cheap beef in the wake of sharp increases in beef prices by butcheries.
The most troubled area in Masvingo Province is Chiredzi District especially around areas that lie near the border with Mozambique.
The severe drought that choked the country last year precipitated stock theft especially cattle to the Mozambicans who are reportedly offering high cash per beast.
Most cattle herds along border areas like Chikombedzi and Malipati have been severely decimated by cattle rustlers, who continue to flourish, galvanised by the existence of a ready market there.
Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) programme officer for Chiredzi, Mr Ereck Manyimbire also lamented about rising cases of cattle theft along the border.
He said a lot of cattle had crossed into Mozambique adding that farmers in Malipati, Gezani, Sengwe and Chikombedzi were the most affected.
"Last year farmers lost about 15 percent of their cattle to rustlers but this year the situation is worse as farmers have already lost between 35 to 45 percent of their cattle so far," he said.
Mr Chimwanda said Chikombedzi and Malipati near Limpopo River, were the hardest hit areas because of their proximity to Mozambique.
He said that while a beast could sell for between $120 000 and $190 000 locally, Mozambicans offered figures as high as $250 000 per beast, a very attractive and enticing amount to cash strapped Zimbabweans.
"The Mozambicans have caused a stir here because they do not even negotiate. They give the person the money they would have asked for.
"They cross the border and connive with locals who will then steal some beasts for them and in return they get very high rewards.
"There is a vibrant beef market in Mozambique where there are very few or no cattle forcing people there to come to Zimbabwe," he said.
So bad is the stocktheft problem that one farmer lost 15 herd of cattle last week in the Chikombedzi-Malipati area.
Economic hardships and last year's drought, were some of the factors that were buoying cattle rustling near the border with Mozambique.
Masvingo provincial police spokesman, Assistant Inspector Elvis Nekate said police were aware of the rising cases of stocktheft especially cattle in areas near the border with Mozambique.
"We are going to intensify patrols by our mounted section units in areas near the border with Mozambique where a lot of cattle are being stolen.
"Joint patrols with our counterparts in Mozambique have already begun and we have identified routes which the rustlers use on their way to Mozambique giving hope that the crime may subside," he said.
Ass Inspector Nekate said plans were afoot to increase community participation in combating crime through neighbourhood watch committees in areas like Chikombedzi where 48 percent of cattle stolen this year came from.
"We encourage people to form neighbourhood watch committees as they have proved to be effective in reducing crime in other areas.
"The entire community has a duty to fight crime because police alone will not manage without their co-operation," said Ass Inspector Nekate.
He urged villagers to brand their cattle for easy identification. He added that farmers should get all identification particulars of cattle herdsmen as some of them could be thieves wanted for stocktheft.