Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
Simon Ndebele, 57, headman Madlambuzi of Bulilima district has lines of worry on his face as large-scale livestock thefts in particular are on the rise in this south-western part of the region bordering Botswana.
Rustling has stirred an unpleasant state of inner turmoil for him and scores of other farmers battling animal thieves in the district.
Livestock theft, he says, has reached ungodly proportions leaving some widows with nothing.
"Thieves are targeting widows and the elderly, stealing cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep. In my village, three widows no longer have any livestock left," he says.
"Livestock theft is now rampant here and we are appealing to the police to help us save our wealth."
Rustling is causing huge losses to the farmers causing high levels of anxiety for farmers who have built up their flocks over many years.
Cattle are their only bank and store of wealth.
"Women are the biggest victims. They are losing animals to thieves who either cross into Botswana and drive the stolen cattle to places as far as Tsholotsho," says Jabet Mlalazi, councillor for Madlambuzi in Ward 11.
"People are afraid of the criminals. They are leaving in fear. Some of the criminals are armed and dangerous. The police must come to our rescue. Widows are the most affected and they need our protection as a community."
Rustlers are getting more skilled and organised. They are reported to be using all sorts of strategies including coming to the district with vehicles and engaging gangs who can quickly drive the cattle through the bush.
An alarming trend is the illegal butchery of animals in the bush leaving hides behind.
"Some the criminals butcher our cattle and take all the carcass leaving the hide. They transport the loot to Bulawayo and other butcheries in Plumtree," says Mlalazi.
"Farmers are overpowered and in many cases fear for their lives. The criminals are robbing us of our real wealth. Our cattle, our donkeys, goats and sheep are our bank. It's very terrible for us here when we lose our livestock."
Farmers and their families are often devastated when they go to check their flocks to find the bloodied remains in the bush.
Widows are particularly traumatised by the loss of their wealth.
"I lost six cattle and two donkeys. These were my only lifeline," says Simphiwe Ndebele, a widow in Madlambuzi.
"The thieves are very cruel. They have no mercy at all. I now have only two cattle left and no donkeys. I use donkeys to collect water some 5km away. I also use them to go to the grinding mill but now I have nothing."
The villagers met the police chief for the district recently to discuss the rising cases of theft.
"We met the ZRP Dispol for Bulilima district two weeks ago and he promised to take drastic action to fight cattle rustling in our area," says councillor Mlalazi.
"The local community is ready to cooperate with the police. We need to work closely with the police to end cattle rustling."
Thieves are changing their strategies.
In some cases, they no longer invade a kraal and take away cows as they used to.
Reports in Bulilima abound that they first befriend family members and most especially workers on the homesteads dotted around the district, give them money and then they steal the animals.
Some pose as people looking for jobs and once they are employed, they later steal the livestock when they herd the animals in the bush.
"They are becoming sophisticated and stealing is happening in various ways. Farmers must be vigilant at all times. They must not employ herd boys they don't know. They must have the background of the people they ask to look after their animals," says councillor Mlalazi.
"We have formed a WhatsApp group here to enable us to alert each other on animal thefts but we have network problems. Half the time it's not easy for farmers to communicate easily and on time.
"As farmers we are also trying our best to fight back. Where possible, we are encouraging farmers to send alerts to mobile phones if they see the criminals. But it can be costly, time-consuming and not always effective, as the majority do not have smart phones and access to solar energy to recharge their phones."
The police insist that they do take cattle rustling seriously and understand the wide -- reaching impact on the livelihoods of farmers.
But lack of resources has hampered the tracking down of criminals. They lack vehicles to move into the whole of Bulilima district.
"Criminals are aware that the police have limited resources. So, they take advantage of this to steal our animals," says headman Ndebele.
"The government must provide adequate resources to the police. They need vehicles, sniffer dogs and other tracking equipment to fight crime."
Coordinating the fight against cross border crime has been problematic for Zimbabwe and Botswana.
"The police in Botswana often accuse us, as Zimbabweans, of stealing animals. They hardly cooperate with us. We are farmers too and we know how it feels to lose our livestock," says headman Ndebele.
"Criminals at times come from as far as Tsholotsho, Plumtree and Bulawayo. We are victims of the crime. As farmers we are keen to safeguard our livestock."
The loss of cattle is hitting farmers in Bulilima and in various parts of the country hard.
People losing their cattle are poor villagers who have no money to replace them.
Livestock thefts leave them with no animals to pull ploughs and as a source of milk and food.
Stock theft cases attract a minimum mandatory jail sentence of nine years or a penalty, which does not exceed 25 years per stolen beast.
Villagers around Beitbridge and Gwanda also complain bitterly that cattle rustlers steal their livestock and drive them across the Limpopo for slaughter.
This also plays out in Chipinge, Chiredzi, Muzarabani, Kanyemba, Nyanga and other parts bordering Mozambique to the east of the country.
Farmers on the border lying areas are suffering an explosion in stock theft which is destroying their livelihoods.
On average, between 5 000 and 10 000 cases of livestock thefts are reported per year in Zimbabwe.
The ZRP Anti-Stock Theft Unit has over the years intensified its campaigns, deployments and community-based initiatives to fight animal thefts.