Environmental Crisis: Conservancies – report

Commercial Farmers’ Union - Report

20 October 2011


Environmental and Wildlife Catastrophe - Conservancies

The situation on invaded wildlife conservancies and former cattle ranches is now extremely serious as the rule of law has collapsed and the environmental destruction is reaching epidemic proportions. 

Along the road to the Beit Bridge border post with South Africa in the arid lowveld region, the damage is now so devastating that an environmentalist has described it as “looking like a bomb has hit the areas”. 

Prior to the land invasions, Zimbabwe was the only country in Africa to have more game on private farms and conservancies than in the national parks.  Conservation was encouraged through various interventions, notably the internationally renowned Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) project

Zimbabwe pioneered community-based resource management.  The CAMPFIRE project was designed to empower local communities and to devolve some of the benefits of wildlife to them.  

Job opportunities for locals and revenues from tourism increased local incomes considerably. The tangible benefits of tourism resulted in a positive change of community attitudes to wildlife and of Parks officials toward community members.

This encouraged communities to protect the country’s wildlife assets and tolerate any damage or risks associated with them, such as the escape of a predator or an elephant. The program proved to be most successful in areas of high-value wildlife resources, low populations and low levels of agriculture.

 However, since the land invasions, every conservancy has taken a massive battering and the virtual collapse of the tourism sector has had dire consequences for communities.

Farm invasions in many areas took place initially on farms with wildlife operations due to the alleged policy of turning a blind eye to the ruling party militia’s poaching and to allow the invaders free meat.  Invaders frequently used the opportunity as a commercial enterprise and slaughtered the wildlife ruthlessly until it was decimated on the invaded property.     

Virtually all of the remaining wildlife ranches are currently under threat.  The implications are devastating for the future of wildlife in Zimbabwe and for tourism. It is estimated that game ranches have lost between 80 percent and 90 percent of wildlife to poachers and the larger conservancies, have lost around 60 percent. Some game ranchers have reported that they do not have a single animal left.

Some of these game ranches and conservancies are home to endangered species. The poachers do not discriminate between endangered and common species. The painted dog, an endangered species previously hand reared on a conservancy in the Gwayi area near the Victoria Falls, has been totally eliminated.

On a conservancy in Matabeleland, it is estimated that almost 50 percent of their Black Rhino, also an endangered species, has been slaughtered by so called "war vets".

Journalist Kevin Heath of Wildlife News (UK), commenting in an article published on March 10, 2011, wrote:

“Zimbabwe has already seen massive losses of wildlife as a result of previous land reform actions and some have said that this will have a severe impact on the wildlife in the country and effectively bring to an end the tourism which is just beginning to recover from a turbulent time.”

He said that two ministers, Stan Mudenge (Higher and Tertiary Education Minister) and Saviour Kasukuwere (Indigenisation Minister), had threatened to drive out animals from one conservancy and “barbecue remaining animals if the ranch owners continued to resist the indigenisation drive”.

As Heath noted, despite President Mugabe’s claims that the landless poor have been the beneficiaries of the land reform programme, “this latest round of land reform will see 59 people allocated leases or gaining majority share holdings of established wildlife conservancies.

“All are members of the ZANU PF and are composed of senior members of the party and the military including Cabinet Minister Stan Mudenge, Masvingo Governor Titus Maluleke, former deputy Minister Shuvai Mahofa, Major-General Engelbert Rugeje (and) retired Brigadier-General Gibson Mashingaidze.”

On October 6, Zimbabwe’s Financial Gazette reported that, according to Wikileaks, Cabinet Ministers and other senior ZANU PF officials were making a killing from wildlife conservancies seized from dispossessed commercial farmers

The individuals on the list included:

  • Joseph Made, Minister of Agriculture
  • Ignatius Chombo, Minister of Local Government
  • Webster Shamu, Minister of Information and Publicity
  • Kembo Mohadi, Minister of Home Affairs
  • Paradzai Zimondi, Head of the Prison Services
  • Jocelyn Chiwenga, the wife of Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander Constantine Chiwenga
Willem Wijnstekers, secretary-general of the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), warned that between 2008 and 2010, Zimbabwean forces were responsible for the deaths of 200 rhinos, bringing the species to the brink of extinction in the country.

During the first three months of 2010 alone, 118 elephant tusks were recovered and 144 poachers were arrested.  Four rhino horns were recovered.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the four pillars of the economy were agriculture, mining, manufacturing and tourism.

By the late 1980s, mass-scale poaching had poured down in a wave from East Africa into Zambia and Zimbabwe, virtually wiping out the rhino populations and decimating the Zambezi valley rhinos.  A decision was taken to relocated 300 rhinos, some to the national parks and others onto private land.

Goldman Prize Winner Raul du Toit, who became involved in rhino conservation in Zimbabwe during this period, said it was necessary to transform cattle ranches in the southern areas of the country into wildlife land in order to create a long-term enabling environment for rhino conservation, to spread the burden away from the state and encourage tourism.  Communities would be given a dividend proportionate to their shareholdings in the operation

The Savé Valley Conservancy

The Savé Valley Conservancy, located in the lowveld of south eastern Zimbabwe (Masvingo province), was previously a collection of more than 20 separate cattle ranches.

During the early 1990s, after a disastrous drought made farming impossible in this drought-prone region, they were combined into Africa’s largest privately-owned wildlife reserve.

Hundreds of elephants were brought in, as well as the near-extinct black rhino, which began to breed more successfully there than anywhere else in the world.  This contributed to the conservancy becoming one of Zimbabwe’s “great environmental success stories

Nine months after the land invasions of 2000 began, poachers had killed more than 1,600 animals.  Many died slow, painful deaths after being caught in crude wire snares cut from large sections of the perimeter fence.

When Minister of Tourism Francis Nhema visited the area to view the damage, he condemned those responsible and said it pained him to see such destruction.  He said it would be folly to resettle people on land unsuited for farming.

Eleven years later, despite the efforts of Mr Nhema, the environmental degradation and loss of wildlife has continued, land invasions are once again escalating as the spectre of another violent election looms in 2012, and all of the conservancies are under threat.

The Chiredzi River Conservancy

In the Chiredzi River Conservancy (CRC), also located in the lowveld in close proximity to Gona re Zhou National Park, hordes of invaders or “new settlers” are pouring onto the land, totally disregarding the long-term impact of environmental destruction and mass-scale poaching.

Part of the Trans Frontier Conservancy Area, the CRC is situated in a region classified as Region 5, which means it is arid and not suitable for agriculture.  After 11 years of settlement and attempted farming, all of the waves of invaders are still relying on food aid because the area is too hot and the rainfall too low for food crops to grow.

Despite this, the latest invaders are indiscriminately clearing vast swathes of trees and vegetation that are critical for the survival of the entire ecosystem.  Some species of trees, notably hardwoods, take decades to grow and may be well over a hundred years old.

During the deforestation process, trees that are hacked down indiscriminately for firewood, such as the mopane, are piled up in huge stacks, loaded onto trucks and then sold to the urban areas. Many trees are simply set fire to and burned in situ, leaving only the ash behind as a reminder of a once magnificent, shady tree

Mopane trees are an important food source for humans and animals

The beautiful mopane trees, with their distinctive butterfly-shaped leaves, are an important food source for animals and people. Vast tracts of uninterrupted mopane scrub and woodland characterize the hot, low-lying areas near the Limpopo River.

Once tracts of land are cleared of scrub and trees for cropping, they are set alight to facilitate the clearing. Since burning is not controlled, vast areas go up in smoke causing severe damage to the environment and killing any animals in their path unable to escape the leaping flames.

Even the fragile riverine forests, which are important sanctuaries for birds and wildlife, as well as protecting and retaining the river banks, are being destroyed, despite the law against stream bank cultivation.  This leads rapidly to the downstream siltation of rivers and dams, with dire consequences for humans and animals.

There is no thought or planning for the ecosystem, or for the future.

The consequences of erosion

Denuding the land of ground cover by over-grazing, burning or through attempts at cultivating arid land results in sheet erosion (rainfall washing over the land), the most serious type of erosion.  In Zimbabwe, sheet erosion is estimated to remove 50 tonnes/ha per year from an average communal land. This is the starting point for gully erosion.

Ten tonnes of soil equates to 1mm of soil spread over one hectare.  This amount of soil fills more than a hundred wheelbarrow-loads.  An area losing 100 tonnes/ha per year is losing more than a thousand wheelbarrow-loads of soil

Despite desperate efforts by conservationists to convince the authorities of the seriousness of the situation countrywide, no management or guidance has been forthcoming.

The resulting fallout will continue to impact not only on Zimbabwe but also on neighbouring countries, notably South Africa and Mozambique, which experienced devastating floods in 2000. 

As Michael James Tumbare warned his abstract, “Mitigating Floods in Southern Africa”, ‘Bad agricultural practices or watershed management result in soil erosion and salinity of underground water. River regimes are altered by siltation, resulting in lower carrying capacity, resulting in rivers bursting their banks and flooding. The Save and Limpopo rivers are typical examples.’

Although there is funding available to help the invaders move from the Chiredzi River Conservancy to areas more suitable for farming, the destruction is accelerating and the authorities are failing to address the escalating crisis.

Conservancy owners and the CFU have pointed out continuously to the authorities that conservancies should not fall under the Land Acquisition Act.  Government needs to pass a law that will protect them under the Tourism Act, and ensure they are exempt from acquisition for resettlement. 

Instead of solving the crisis, the state has dragged the Chiredzi River Conservancy owners to court for the past three years, accusing them of occupying and using “state land” without authority.  This is despite the fact that the conservancy was a remarkable environmental success story, attracting significant tourism to the area and generating much needed foreign currency.

Endangered Elephants

The Chiredzi River Conservancy is currently facing another crisis – and this one is threatening the survival of its remarkable herd of 70 adult elephants and vulnerable youngsters.

The nucleus of the herd originated from Gona re Zhou (place of the elephant) National Park’s conservation programme initiated in 1991/2 when there was an exceptionally severe drought in the lowveld and their elephants were dying.

Gona re Zhou National Park, part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (consisting of five parks in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe) is close to the CRC and the translocation was sponsored by US Fisheries and Wildlife.

The juveniles purchased by the CRC were in a very poor condition and had to be kept in bomas (enclosures) and hand-reared.  Once stabilized and settled, they were released into the conservancy where they grew up and bred under ideal conditions.

As a result of their strong bond with the owners of CRC, the elephants are familiar with people and are quite placid. However, the onslaught of the invaders, who are destroying their territory and forcing them into ever smaller areas of the conservancy, is putting them under severe stress.

One of the problems is the invasion of the elephants’ water sources. An adult elephant requires more than 190 litres of drinking water on a daily basis, and even higher quantities during the intense heat of the lowveld in summer. Water is also very important for hygiene and wallowing, a time when the adults and youngsters play together.

The tranquil pools below the conservancy’s dams have been polluted by the invaders who wash their clothes in the water and drive their livestock down to drink, causing the mud to be churned up.  The pools are now polluted and the water has become undrinkable for the elephants.

Wherever they go, the elephants are being harassed by the invaders. When they walk along the Mungwezi River to the two dams to the north, containing drinkable water, they are chased away by a hostile group with dogs and burning logs, causing tremendous stress to the herd. 

During September 2011, desperation for water resulted in the herd straying out of their normal territory, along the Mungwezi River, south of where they feel safe, into a resettled part of the conservancy, the Mungwezi Ranch area, where the bulls destroyed a teacher’s house

Their unusual behaviour is attributed to the human disturbance and encroachment into their safe areas, where their natural habitat is being destroyed by the new invasions. 

The Mungwezi residents have expressed concern about their personal safety and threats have been made to shoot the elephants or even poison them if the situation is not controlled.

For the invaders and the elephants, the best solution would be for the authorities to move the invaders to suitable agricultural land where they can make a living from the land and no longer rely on food aid, poaching or cutting down trees to sell for firewood.

Until this happens, the CRC urgently needs funding to employ more patrol staff to monitor the area and protect the animals from poaching. 

The invaders are abusive towards the National Parks rangers, game scouts and conservancy workers and the local Zimbabwe Republic Police are reluctant to help

Poached Chiredzi River Conservancy elephant with tusks removed and carcass left to rot

The dramatic upscaling of poaching across the country is decimating the wildlife.  Invaders hunt with half-starved dogs or trap the game with snares, causing terrible pain and inflicting lingering deaths. 

Recent reports of the poisoning of animals and water sources are of mounting concern to conservationists. In September, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority said that waterholes have been contaminated with an unidentified poison at the Gona re Zhou, Mana Pools, Zambezi, Charara and Matusadona national parks.Predators are also poisoned or snared. Due to the reduction of wildlife and natural prey, they often resort to killing domestic livestock in order to survive.

Hundreds of cattle brought onto the conservancies illegally are rapidly over-grazing the fragile grassland areas, bringing with them the threat of anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease. 

On the CRC, a serious cattle-related problem is also developing. 

Alongside the Mungwezi River, the invaders are trying to rebuild a dilapidated dipping tank, estimated to be up to 70 years old and which has not been used for more than 20 years.

Since the Mungwezi River has changed its course, the dipping tank is now only three metres away from the river and any chemicals used in the tank will end up poisoning the river below it.

Despite the authorities being notified, none of them have been to the reserve to assess the environmental threat and stop the uncontrolled building activities.

Long-term solutions for conservancies

As is the case with the CRC, the invaders need to be moved immediately to suitable agricultural areas where they can be self-sufficient.

Organisations such as Foundations for Farming, a remarkable Zimbabwean success story, could provide conservation agriculture training.  The founder, Brian Oldreive, has already provided thousands of aspiring farmers with expertise, teaching them a revolutionary method of using the land to achieve significant crop yields.

Most importantly, government urgently needs to pass a law that will protect conservancies under the Tourism Act, and will not allow conservancy land to be invaded or claimed.

World Tourism Day was celebrated internationally last month, but Zimbabwe had nothing to celebrate.

In 1999, our country recorded more than 1.4 million visitors. Due to the political instability, the numbers dropped by 75 percent in 2008 to just 223 000.  Today there are virtually no tourists in the conservancies because they are aware of the violence-ridden invasions and the destruction of our once prized game.

The coalition government cannot allow the lawlessness and destruction of Zimbabwe’s heritage, our future and that of our children to continue.  It is critical that they now take a stand, resolve the escalating crisis and restore the rule of law. 

The conservancies and Commercial Farmers’ Union can provide support and assist with new initiatives, but we cannot do this until the government has intervened.  Any pressure that the international community can apply will be invaluable.

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change, taking place from 28 November to 9 December 2011 in Durban, South Africa, will be an important platform for raising awareness of the Zimbabwean crisis, both formally and informally. An estimated 20-30,000 people will participate in the conference, representing more than190 nations.

Indigenisation threats

Dispossessed commercial farmers and conservancy owners who have managed to set up alternative businesses in the cities and towns are also coming under threat amid erroneous claims that they fall under the Indigenisation Act.

On September 15, rowdy ZANU PF youths went on the rampage in Chiredzi, taking over three white-owned buildings, one of them operated by dispossessed commercial farmer Peter Henning, and accusing the business owners of refusing to comply with the Indigenisation and Empowerment Act.

They claimed they would “not sit (by) while their aging leaders in ZANU PF grabbed everything and used them in their fight for political power."

However, the youths – and others who have sought to intimidate business owners in different parts of the country – have failed to understand that Indigenisation Act only applies to foreign-owned businesses worth more than US$500,000 nett value.

While the deadline for mining companies to comply with the Act was end September 2011, compliance for other foreign-owned companies is still more than three years away, by which stage the scenario in Zimbabwe should be completely different. 


For further information:

Charles Taffs


Commercial Farmers’ Union of Zimbabwe

Tel:    +263 4 309 800

Cell:  +263 772 284 847

E-mail: ctaffs@cfuzim.org or pres@cfuzim.org