GOLD panners, many of them school-dropouts, have invaded Tarka Forest in Chimanimani, destroying a timber plantation and causing extensive environmental degradation. The panners, who are mainly concentrating along streams in search of alluvial gold, have so far destroyed 186 hectares of forests through fires and stumping.
A supervisor with the Tarka Forest Mr Albert Chimiro recently said the panners were in the habit of starting fires to prevent the police from pursuing them easily.
"They start fires every time they hear that the police will be coming. I think they also do that to fix plantation owners for reporting their presence to police," he said.
"The panners also dig up very big trees that are supposed to generate significant revenue if harvested and processed. If you visit any stream in the forest, you will find huge trees and boulders strewn everywhere."
The Herald caught up with a group of the panners along a stream behind one of the saw mills in Tarka Forest who revealed that they were doing panning as a way of beating economic hardships.
"We are earning a living from the gold we find here. We sell a gramme for between US$40 and US$44," one of the panners who identified himself as Chiketo said.
Chiketo said the teenagers who were among the panners were there to raise money to sustain their families as well as generate their own income.
One panner who declined to identify himself said he was 16 years old and had left school to do gold panning.
"I came here to make money. There is nothing I admire in those who spend years attending school, then fail to get employment afterwards. Some of them can even get employed but they earn very little," he said.
Panners have over the years targeted Tarka Forest for its alluvial gold that they say fetches a lot of money on the illegal market.