At least 50 people have been killed so far this year due to human and wildlife conflict in the Hwange area, quite a jump from the 42 who died the whole of last year and almost double the 26 that died in 2016.
The upsurge in deaths could be attributed to President Emmerson Mnangagwa's drive to grow Zimbabwe's mining sector into a US$12 billion industry by 2023, which is coming at a huge cost to communities bordering Hwange National Park, who are now at the mercy of wild animals being pushed out of the giant reserve by coal miners.
The rush for Zimbabwean coal by Chinese firms, particularly around the country's largest game reserve, has alarmed conservationists.
A fortnight ago Bhejane Trust, a conservation group, stumbled on two Chinese firms Zhongxin Coking Company Ming Group and Afrochine Smelting, who were paving the way for large-scale coal extraction in the Sinamattela area inside the park.
Lobbying by conservationists and a public outcry over the operations in Hwange forced the government to suspend mining activities in all national parks, which effectively froze the Chinese projects.
Investigations, however, show that before the invasion of the park by the Chinese, Hwange had seen the emergence of a number of coal mining projects as part of the government's new strategy launched last year.
The mining activities have come at a great cost for communities surrounding the national park - the home of the Big Five - as wild animals are being pushed out of the reserves by the coal miners, fuelling a deadly human-wildlife conflict.
Squeezed out of the park, wild animals are now straying into Hwange town and surrounding villages, leading to an unprecedented number of people being killed or crops being destroyed.
Investigations by the Centre for National Resource Governance (CNRG) revealed that before the arrival of the two Chinese firms, there were already operations by a number of companies that were threatening the biodiversity of the national park.
CNRG said the companies were mining too close to conservation areas, a situation that was forcing the animals to stray into human settlements.
The companies identified by the lobby group are Makomo Resources, Zambezi Coal Gasification Company and Hwange Colliery Company's concession in the western area.
One of Mnangagwa's first actions when he took over from Mugabe was to grant his close associate Billy Rautenbach a grant to start coal mining closer to the sacred Bumbusi ruins in the Sinamatella area.
"There has been increased frequency at which wild animals are now straying into human settlements, as observed by Hwange residents in July this year," reads a research note by Henry Nyapokoto from CNRG.
"This is scaring communities and mine workers. Elephants have reportedly destroyed water pipes, as they search for drinking water in Hwange town. In the past three months, elephants have caused havoc in Number 1, 2 and 5 suburbs of Hwange town as well as Chibondo and Shangano villages of Hwange rural."
Villagers in communities surrounding the national park are also losing livestock to animals such as lions and leopards in large numbers.
According to CNRG data, in the past four years, villagers around the game reserve have lost at least 462 cattle, 544 goats and 94 donkeys due to predatory animals being pushed out of their habitat.
"Of the 50 people, who have been killed by animals since January, more than 25 are elderly women owing to their custodianship of the rural economy," the lobby group said.
"Extensive mining operations in Hwange and around the national park have been driving animals into places where women fetch firewood in the dry forest for household purposes."
Farai Maguwu, the CNRG director, said the number of people being killed by wild animals around Hwange pointed to a crisis.
"All the 50 deaths are avoidable," Maguwu said. "The government needs to ensure that natural habitats for wildlife are left untouched by mining. In addition, the government must carry out safety awareness campaigns in communities neighbouring national parks so that people avoid walking into harm's way and also giving them skills of how to manoeuvre from charging animals."
A Hwange resident, Fedilis Chuma with help from the Zimbabwe Environment Lawyers Association (Zela) has sought the High Court's intervention to stop Zhongxin and Afrochine's mining activities, arguing that they would worsen the human-wildlife conflict in the area.
"Already loss of both human and animal life has occurred as a result of the inevitable emigration from the park by the various animal species fleeing their former habitat," Chuma said in his affidavit.
"I seek an interdict on an urgent basis on the basis that coal mining activities if not immediately prevented, shall damage the national park and will cause turmoil to the lives of indigenes and plants as well as animal varieties native to the Hwange National Park."
Environment minister Mangaliso Ndlovu has come under fire for allowing Zhongxin and Afrochine to start mining operations inside the park despite objections by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks).
The deals between the government and the Chinese were reportedly signed in Mnangagwa's presence.
Fulton Mangwanya, the Zimparks director-general, on July 27 wrote to Ndlovu warning him about the adverse implications of setting up mining operations in the game reserve.
"It will be the first time for coal mining to be permitted in a national park, a precedent that will be very difficult to sustain," Mangwanya said.
The Zimparks boss was also worried that mining activities would affect tourism infrastructure inside the park.
"Honourable minister, there are tourism camps with valid lease agreements, within which a lot of legal issues will certainly come up due to the commitments and obligations that are on paper," Mangwanya added.
"Such businesses rely on the aesthetic value of the environment inside Hwange National Park, offering unparalleled wilderness experience as the main product, which will be defied by the presence of mining activity or exploration thereof. The affected leases include Camp Hwange, Kapula Camp, African Safari Walks, Imvelo and Kuzuma Trails."
In July, during a tour of the various coal mining projects in Hwange by Mnangagwa, Mines minister Winston Chitando said Zimbabwe was targeting a US$1 billion coal, coal bed methane and gas industry by 2023.
Chitando said the country would be energy self-sufficient by 2030 and thermal power stations were set to drive that growth.
Conservationists, however, say Zimbabwe's priorities are misplaced as the world is moving towards cleaner sources of energy and phasing out coal.
Source: Center for Innovation and Technology (CITE)