Zimbabwe: Sos From the Wilderness - Save Our Save

AS the ownership wrangle engulfing the Save Valley Conservancy continues with no clear solution in sight, the wildlife paradise is being ravaged by poachers and unplanned development. The privately-owned wilderness now risks being completely rundown, reports Nelson Chenga.

ALONG Zimbabwe's Masvingo-Birchenough Bridge highway in the south eastern Lowveld is a little known place called paGedhe. Literally, it means "at the gate," although there is no gate in sight.

The place, which has about a dozen or so tiny shops, was named after the main gate leading into what was once arguably the country's largest cattle ranch of Devuli that covered 7 500 square kilometres when it was created in 1919.

The ranch has, however, shrunk in size. What used to be the main gate is now located some 40km away from its original site after President Robert Mugabe's controversial land reforms sliced by half the ranch's former size to the current 3 400 square kilometres.

Despite having already lost half of its land, the fate of Devuli appears yet to be sealed, as further land reforms eat into the remaining property by releasing thousands of villagers into the ranch.

Devuli was transformed into the country's biggest privately-owned game park, now called Save Valley Conservancy, in mid 1990s.

The conservancy is in the country's predominantly Natural Region 5, an area with a highly erratic annual rainfall of less 650 millimeters, making cattle and crop production or any other form of agricultural activity an extremely dicey pre-occupation.

The creation of the Save Valley Conservancy was so well supported that the government signed international Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (BIPPAs) with more than half a dozen governments that then invested heavily into the park by helping erect a 350km perimeter game fence, purchasing animals and sinking boreholes, among other things.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the conservancy, which has about 25 former white commercial cattle ranchers, and the five rural districts of Bikita, Chiredzi, Zaka, Buhera and Chipinge was also signed in 2000 to soften the hard edge created by the physical fence barrier.

The MOU gave birth to social and economic partnerships that benefitted the conservancy and its neighbours.

However, more than two decades down the line the dream of creating an animal paradise that would be part of one of the world's biggest game reserves, the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, is turning into a nightmare as the project fast falls apart.

Half of the 350km game fence has been ripped off and used to snare the park's wild animals that include more than half of some of Zimbabwe's greatest treasures, the rhino, the lion, the leopard, the buffalo and the elephant, commonly referred to as the Big Five.

Four of Africa's celebrated Big Five are all on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Redlist of Threatened Species, a list of flora and fauna in danger of extinction.

Organised criminals using high-powered guns have also come to the party specifically to target the Big Five.

Considering that a licenced hunter is willing to pay US$20 000 to shoot a lion and US$12 000 for a bull elephant over and above the US$2 500 they pay per day to secure a hunting permit, one can easily figure out that the country is being prejudiced of millions of dollars by poachers ravaging Save Valley Conservancy.

Venison and fresh game meat is now a common daily diet for communities around the park because of rampant poaching activities .

With the fence damaged, the wild animals, especially lions, now also roam freely into the communal areas attacking livestock, creating an ugly state of chaos.

The situation looks even more untidy as about 2 000 people, with more still coming in, are busy clearing huge tracts of the conservancy, including areas covered under BIPPAs, to plant crops such as sorghum and millet.

Juxtapose this perplexing scenario with a spirited campaign by a horde of influential politicians and businesspeople seeking a stake in the conservancy without them contributing a single cent, the future for Save Valley becomes too ghastly to contemplate.

The situation on the ground is moving from bad to worse as the conservancy members refuse to pay unit taxes, maintain the conservancy, chiefly the boundary fence, or take responsibility for whatever happens in the game park arguing that it is no longer clear who owns the property, a state of affairs that is promoting a free for all situation.

Save Valley Conservancy Trust chairperson, Basil Nyabadza, in an interview with The Financial Gazette In-Depth, said a conservancy was not very different from a nursery; a special designated asset that must be jealously guarded.

"However, in the past five years we have seen unprecedented levels of poaching taking place . . . It's organised poaching. It's not being done by amateurs. It's well-organised and sadly possibly aided by local people out of greed. Poaching is now getting out of control in the conservancy," said Nyabadza.

Nyabadza, who has courted the ire of some of the politicians and businesspeople seeking a stake in Save because of his strong views against unplanned resettlements and poorly structured empowerment programmes, highlighted that some of the poachers now have the temerity of using automatic weapons, a situation which he described as worrying.

Nyabadza, whose Agricultural and Rural Development Authority has a stake in Save, said very little safari hunting could take place in the conservancy this year since the game park's future continues to hang in the balance due to the ownership wrangle.

"Sadly there have been cancellations of hunting from foreign clients because they are aware there is a dispute in progress and last year's trophies have not been exported because the ministry has withheld some of the permits. So these are some of the immediate problems that have taken root. Someone comes here, pays full fees, hunts and we then deny them the permit to export. Immediately they ask: 'What's happening?' We have lost badly this season as a nation. We have lost badly because the trust and expectations of the hunting community (have not been met). It doesn't look good and it means serious cash flow constraints," said Nyabadza, adding that the scenario may affect the successful hosting of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly to be held in August this year.

"There is a programme coming up this August, the UNWTO, so we must be at our best behaviour. We don't need to be in conflict, shouting at each other and undermining the very constituency who are going to be hosted by us. Now we have some of those with whom we have signed bilateral agreements agitated that their assets are under siege. This is causing problems in our international relations."

The Lowveld Rhino Trust director, Raoul du Toit, who was part of the conservancy since inception, said the major donors behind rhino conservation were concerned that the economic viability of Save Valley was being undermined by political disputes that have disrupted safari hunting operations.

Said du Toit: "Because ecotourism is presently limited in Zimbabwe owing to negative international perceptions, the conservancy relies heavily upon safari hunting . . . Major recurrent costs arise in anti-poaching, water pumping, fence maintenance, restocking, maintenance of infrastructure, skilled staff, marketing and other aspects of the wildlife business.

"Once safari hunting is disrupted, the conservancy members have no income to maintain their ranch operations, which include anti-poaching activities. In the past, the members were able to look after rhinos very effectively on behalf of the nation..."

Du Toit suggested that for Zimbabwe to wean itself from donor assistance such as that currently being given by the International Rhino Foundation and SAVE Foundation, there was need for community partnerships to help reduce the costs involved in protecting wildlife resources. Incentives for local communities to sustain wildlife resources can also help reduce local poaching, fence destruction and other problems, he said.

The five rural district councils that signed the MOU with the Save Valley Conservancy Trust in 2000 are also losing thousands of dollars in unpaid unit tax because of the dispute.

"You cannot approach any of the farmers because they are saying they are not the owners," said Bikita Rural District Council (RDC) chief executive officer, Johnson Mpamhadzi.

Bikita RDC failed to collect US$152 747 in unit taxes last year, an amount which represents 7,6 percent of the council's budget.

Nonetheless, with the Save Valley Conservancy dispute having been referred to Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, one just hopes that a solution would be found soon before it is too late.

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