Wildlife is the mainstay of Zimbabwe's tourism industry and has of late become the centre of conflict between National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and white former farmers.
Being the vital cog in the economic matrix of this country, it is also important to handle the wildlife based land reform programme delicately, but that does not exclude it from conforming to the rules of our national indigenisation programme.
No sector is less important and worse still, the wildlife sector has largely, throughout Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, remained the preserve of a privileged few whites. To this effect, national parks director general Vitalis Chadenga has withheld hunting licences for all wildlife conservancies that have circumvented or have not yet complied with the national indigenisation requirement of 51 percent to the local.
In the process, national parks in general and Chadenga in particular, has attracted the wrath of former white owners and governments of countries of these white farmer's original countries.
The misfortune though is that the implementation of the wildlife based land reform has coincided with our co-hosting with Zambia of the 2013 United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly, and the former white farmers are trying to arm-twist the Government to cede indigenisation rights.
Without serious backing from the Government, through the ministries of Environment and Natural Resources Management Tourism, and Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Chadenga and indeed the wildlife and tourism sector will be doomed.
One such organisation that has caused quite a stir is the Save Valley Conservancy, which at some stage took parks to court but withdrew later,after realising it was a mammoth task. But still the same Save Valley Conservancy also rattled pressure through the embassies and even wrote letters to Ministers Walter Mzembi and Francis Nhema. The plot did not end there. They copied the letter to US Ambassador Charles Ray, Italian Ambassador Stefano Moscatelli, South Africa Ambassador Vusi Mavimbela, Head of EU delegation Aldo Dell'Aricia and ZTA boss Karikoga Kaseke, among others.
As if that was not enough, in March 2012, Save Valley Conservancy tried to circumvent the indigenisation law by appointing businessman Mr Basil Nyabadza as its new chairperson to give it a black face when the surrounding community in Chiredzi had already come up with its share structure.
On three occasions, the ZTA board has met to solve the matter, but the solution seems to lie in the two ministers involved. Fortunately, Chadenga and Kaseke all sit and represent the Chiredzi community, which vehemently rejected Nyabadza.
The villagers led by their Member of Parliament Ailess Baloyi, insist that they should benefit from the conservancy that is in their backyard and that Nyabadza must have nothing to do with it. Chadenga, who is the custodian of the wildlife, insists that he will not release to any conservancy, hunting permits or operating licences until they are compliant.
"There is no way I can release the permits before those involved comply with the laws of this country. There is a mess at Save Valley Conservancy in particular and even if I were to release the permits, to whom would I give them?" questions Chadenga.
That is a fair legal and national position, which, however, has caught the ire of Germany, France, Japan and South Korea, who are threatening not to participate at the UNWTO general assembly. They might influence others not to come as well or to attend functions of the Zambian side. In fact Kaseke has already been put under pressure by countries that have threatened to attend events on the Zambian side only at UNWTO if the issues around wildlife are not resolved.
"We are in trouble because there is no agreement in Save Valley. We have met three times with the concerned parties, but what is left and is the only solution is the audience between our two ministers to put everything to finality.
"Germany, France, Japan and South Korea have approached me and said they want to issue travel warnings based on the Save Valley Conservancy issue and that might jeopardise our co-hosting with Zambia.
"We must therefore find a solution before it's too late. They cannot cancel the hosting but some countries might boycott events on our side and attend those in
Zambia only," says Kaseke.
What it means is that Ministers Mzembi and Nhema must move in, fast and resolve the wildlife-based land reform programme conflict at Save Valley Conservancy, before it spills into our co-hosting of UNWTO general assembly, where we risk being embarrassed by the boycott of events on the Zimbabwean side.
Zimbabwe has a proud record of excellence in wildlife management and nature conservation and despite limited financial resources, the country still stands high among those that have been able to conserve nature. When Zimbabwe undertook to redistribute the land and natural resources to the underprivileged blacks, the wildlife conservancies also needed to be compliant to the national issue. In the past few months, the wildlife-based land reform programme, the last vestige of conflict in the land reform programme, has hogged the limelight, for all the wrong reasons.
Heated debate in Parliament, litigation in courts and unbearable pressure on the vanguard of the natural resources, the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, all tell a story of the inconclusiveness of the implementation matrix of the project.
This is certainly because it is a technically difficult area in as much as it is sensitive. By its admission, the Government delayed implementing the practical indigenisation of this sector due to technical complications and expertise required.
However, to avoid the hysteric hullabaloo about the wildlife-based land reform and avert litigation, we should all understand that there are very simple solutions which might be unpopular.
If there is no solution in the foreseeable future, Government must allow national parks to run the conservancy. Firstly, since under the land reform programme all the land belongs to the Government of Zimbabwe, it is better to surrender all the private wildlife conservancies to Parks and allow the authority to lease the conservancies, using set barometers.
Secondly, since all the wildlife belongs to national parks and is being held in trust by the farmers, it is simple for parks to take back what belongs to it and then lease out. What then is needed is for Government to re-kit and re-tool parks with high technology and financial muscle to enable it to monitor events in each and every conservancy. If MP Baloyi and his people are not given the chance to get a stake at Save Valley, then real villagers have been elbowed out. The former owners who should be sharing the resource with the indigenous people, have taken advantage of the situation and demanded, even through the courts, to continue operating without complying with the law.
Legally, national parks is not supposed to issue hunting quotas and licences until these private conservancy owners comply with the regulations, but the organisation is under pressure from litigants who hide behind the disorganisation among the indigenous.
Going the community share ownership trust way could be another solution, but still the ordinary villager in the south-eastern lowveld feels there is the loophole of being disenfranchised.
Some 28 percent of Zimbabwe's landmass is reserved for wildlife, itself an incredible statement how much importance the Government of Zimbabwe has given and continues to give to this national asset.
If that statistic is correct, then Zimbabwe is great, but if wildlife conservation is an asset the asset implies that it provides returns for those who own it, in this case the Zimbabwean people. If the asset of wildlife is well managed, then, the result is that this will maximise the return for the population in income and wealth creation, in job provision and enhancing the reputation of the country, thus driving tourism and related activities.
There is no doubt that the wildlife-based land reform programme is necessary but the conservancies must become the property of national parks and parks should be allowed to float them on tender even to communities. Villagers become hyper-aggressive when closed out and tend to poach and even destroy property.
The former owners must vacate and should only do business when the mess is sorted out. The greedy and corrupt must also be routed out and the villagers must also be given a reasonable stake managed under some kind of the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources.
Time is moving and it is very critical and important for us all to identify with the solution than the problem, ahead of the UNWTO general assembly.