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Govt chefs seize Rhino conservancy in Midlands

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PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s brother Patrick, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube, a prominent businessman, diplomats, Zanu PF acolytes from the Marange apostolic sect and bureaucrats have settled inside the highly protected Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy (MBRC), The NewsHawks can reveal.

BRENNA MATENDERE

They join Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet Misheck Sibanda, who moved into the conservancy area in 2002 to occupy Bem 3 Farm that is located at the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary.

Their actions are disrupting the conservation of the critically endangered black rhinoceros and placing at risk 35 years of private investments in the wildlife venture.

Scores of Marange apostolic sect members were settled on Circle G Farm ahead of the 2015 Chirumanzu-Zibagwe parliamentary by-election to boost votes for First Lady Auxilia Mnangagwa.

Auxilia was at that time going into an election to contest for a parliamentary seat on a Zanu PF ticket following the elevation of her husband to the post of vice-president after he had held the seat since 2008 when the constituency was hastily created during a delimitation exercise.

The settlements have the potential to put to waste investments running into tens of millions of United States dollars made by multiple property owners and stakeholders for the past 35 years in the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy.

Funders like the Save Foundation of Australia and Sebhakwe Black Rhino Trust also made significant donations to the conservancy to build it into what it is at present, but the illegal settlements could see the investments going down the drain.

The Parks and Wildlife Act (Chapter 20:14) prohibits human settlements or agricultural activities on conservancies, unless with the express authorisation of an Act of Parliament.

At present, no such law has been promulgated to legalise the settlements, not even a statutory instrument.

The conservancy is situated in the Chirumanzu-Zibagwe constituency on the 35-kilometre peg along the Kwekwe-Mvuma road, on the left side of the dusty strip road.

In 2019, Environment minister Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu tried to stop the settlements after Midlands Provincial Affairs minister Larry Mavhima had made a request to allocate land in the conservancy. Ndlovu made it expressly clear that if anyone were to be allocated land in the conservancy, they were supposed to embark only on wildlife-related business and not farming.

In a letter referenced “Allocation of Land within Chinyika Ranch, Circle G and Twin Springs,”dated 9 December 2019 and addressed to Mavhima, Minister Ndlovu wrote:

“Reference is made to your letter of 10 September 2019 in which you request that the properties above be allocated for resettlement… the Ministry advises on the following: 1) the beneficiaries should have the capacity to engage in sustainable wildlife conservation…The properties are ideal for Black Rhino bicorns habitat that needs to be preserved.”

“To ensure proper utilisation of land, ZimParks shall be conducting periodic assessments”.

Minister Ndlovu’s directives were flagrantly ignored as intensive farming is now being practised in the conservancy and he seems unable to rein in the powerful new settlers.

The conservancy was established in 1987 when farmers owning 14 pieces of land came together to pursue wildlife business on space totalling 63 113 hectares.

The conservancy is geographically located on 10 wildlife ranges, namely Moreena, Mazuri, Mahamara, Chinyika, Circle G, Dunlop, Twin Springs, Bemthree, Estrange and Sebakwe Recreational Park that was “donated” to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) by resettled farmers.

Previously known as the Greater Munyati Conservancy, the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy hosts eight black rhinos, with an unknown number of animals also coming in to browse from adjoining game parks in the vicinity.

Twin Springs Farm, which is now occupied by Patrick and Kwande, has wildlife species including sable, wildebeest, zebra and giraffe. The black rhinos also frequent its forests.

Elephant, kudu, eland, impala, bushbuck, waterbuck, buffalo, hippopotamus, wild dog, leopard, cheetah, brown and spotted hyena are found in the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy as a whole.

During a visit to the conservancy, The NewsHawks learnt that the settlers have erected fences around their areas which now restrict the free movement of wildlife.

Brilliant Chibura, the MBRC conservator, told The NewsHawks that no consultation with the conservancy management was done before the new settlers moved in.

He said had the consultations been done, a proper framework would have been laid out to have a win-win situation between the new settlers who want to achieve a lot in agricultural production and those who have been invested in the wildlife business for the past 35 years.

Chibura also revealed that the new settlements are starting to have an impact on the existence of the black rhinos.

“The rhinos are now starting to exhibit different movement patterns, which is a security threat to their lives. They no longer have a definite residence. We are not against the settlements, but consultations were supposed to be done prior,” he said.

Investigations revealed that the new settlers would just come into the conservancy and pick an area of their choice where a junior official from the Lands ministry would then peg for them pieces of land totalling 300 hectares.

Chibura explained why the rhinos need huge swathes of land without human settlements.

“Rhinos are selective feeders and major herbivores, meaning they have to travel a very long distance to select what they can eat. A rhino can eat 200kgs of food daily and for that it must travel for 50km to 60km. On this distance it will be selecting thickets of feed. So if consultations were done we were going to point at the thickets which the rhinos depend on so that settlements would not be done on those areas,” he said.

A farmer who owns a property that has been invaded summarised the implications of the developments.

“We are having an increase in poaching and a decrease in wildlife habitat. There has led to a reduction in tourism potential. International hunting revenue is being lost because the foreign hunters are saying how can we come when there are now people settled in the hunting areas? The country’s reputation is being damaged. Investments running into millions in wildlife which we made in 35 years are now going down the drain. It is a big loss,” he said.

The other economic activities in the conservancy that are now being affected by the new settlers include recreational tourism, consumptive wildlife tourism in the form of local and foreign hunting clients, non-consumptive wildlife and birdlife tourism.

An internationally renowned conservationist told The NewsHawks: “The events unfolding in MBRC are not a positive reflection on Zimbabwe and the great reputation the country has in the arena of wildlife, conservation, environment and tourism. The situation is being watched with concern by wildlife and environmental agencies and organisations across Zimbabwe, the region and the world. If not handled correctly, there will be a mess.” 

During a recent visit by The NewsHawks at the conservancy, it was discovered that Patrick Mnangagwa had grabbed a piece of land that forms part of Twin Springs, one of the farms that make up the MBRC.

Sources revealed that he has partnered Gweru-based businessman Douglas Kwande, also known as DCK, who is into livestock and extensive farming.

The NewsHawks crew observed that prime wildlife habitat had already been cleared to pave way for crop farming in the conservancy.

There is also indiscriminate cutting down of trees and it is not known how big the area that Patrick and his partner are going to occupy will be in total because they are still in the process of clearing the land.

It was also gathered that equipment such as irrigation pumps and electricity transformers to draw water from nearby Sebhakwe River is being moved in.

There has also been the construction of temporary roads which lead to the site from the main pathways of the conservancy.

Investigations revealed that Patrick also owns another farm outside the conservancy near Malala Primary School. He also rents the one owned by jailed State Residences director Douglas Tapfuma.

During the visit by The NewsHawks, lush-green wheat was seen on these two farms being used by Patrick.

There is another farm one kilometre after Bob Swift shopping centre along Kwekwe-Mvuma road that locals said belonged to President Mnangagwa himself.

At the entrance to the farm, which also has huge swathes of land under wheat production, there were army personnel.

President Mnangagwa owns Precabe Farm in Sherwood near Kwekwe where Patrick is his manager.

The farm that Patrick has moved into  is at the centre of the conservancy and is critical because leopard ecological surveys are conducted on the land. 

Elephants and rhinos frequent the farm and soils are generally poor for farming.

Contacted to comment on his settlement in the conservancy, Patrick, who listened calmly to the questions, first said:

“What has that to do with you?” He then launched into combative mode.

“I don’t know about that farm,” he said.

When quizzed further, he surprisingly expressed ignorance over the place where Twin Springs is located.

“I have never been there,” he said.

Asked to explain how he could not know an area where he has two more farms in its vicinity, Patrick terminated the call.

However, villagers who were walking in the conservancy and others at Bob Swift shops and Mlala Primary School, a nearby police station and Mlala shopping centre said they knew Patrick and were also able to give physical directions to his farms.

When this reporter asked a lady who had a baby strapped to her back who owned the cleared land on Twin Springs Farm, she answered in Shona “Apo panonzi paPatrick” (The farm belongs to Patrick).

Patrick’s partner, Kwande, confirmed that he had settled in the conservancy, saying there was a need for farming to be conducted in order to feed the nation.

He said there was nothing wrong with it since the settlement was authorised by high-ranking government officials.

“If you see people moving into a place it means they have papers authorising them to do so. We can cohabit with the animals,” he said.

Kwande also claimed there were white farmers who were doing farming in the conservancy, but The NewsHawks could not independently verify his assertion.

He insisted that the area is good for wheat farming and that they intend to start growing the cereal.

Kwande dismissed assertions that the soils are poor and not ideal for farming.

“If that is the case, perhaps you may now need to go and allocate us another piece of land which is fertile because as for us we know where we have occupied is ideal for farming so that we feed the nation,” he said.

Besides Patrick, there are more prominent people now occupying the rhino conservancy.

Clive Mphambela, the Finance ministry’s chief director, occupies a piece of land in the conservancy. Last year and this season he conducted winter wheat production.

He owns 300 hectares in Chinyika Range and next to his project is that of his boss Ncube whose farm has the same hectarage.

In an interview with The NewsHawks,  Mphambela said there was nothing wrong with him and his boss joining others in Chinyika Range because the area “was always of mixed use.”

“I can’t speak on behalf of the minister, but I can speak for myself because I am also a land owner in Chinyika. People there have different strategies, but what we have agreed as land owners is to have kind of a peaceful co-existence with the animals. My future plan is to create a waterhole because on my area there is a big dwala that seasonally has water which animals come and drink.”

“However, in future we want to sink boreholes so that we have a watering hole that is not seasonal but actually runs throughout the year,” he said.

Asked if Minister Ncube has a similar vision, Mphambela said: “He is my neighbour so our plans are consistent. They are congruent. We have farms that join each other.”

On his own land, Ncube drilled some borehole towards the end of last year.

Mphambela insisted that he observed due process when he was allocated a plot in the conservancy and argued that his activities would not negatively impact on the wildlife.

In the same Chinyika area, there is also  Zimbabwe’s ambassador to South Africa, David Douglas Hamadziripi.

The diplomat is now conducting farming in that section of the conservancy.

Hamadziripi replaced Isaac Moyo in the ambassadorial post after Moyo was appointed Central Intelligence Organisation director-general in the aftermath of the November 2017 military coup which toppled long-time ruler Robert Mugabe.

Hamadziripi served as Zimbabwe’s ambassador to France during the Mugabe era and is a former senior employee of the United Nations.

He confirmed getting a piece of land in the conservancy.

“I have a piece of land there, but I am not so sure that I am obliged to tell you what I am going to be doing with it because you are not the one who gave it to me in the first place,” said the ambassador.

Zimbabwe’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, Chitsaka Chipaziwa, also got a piece of land in the conservancy, and he confirmed it. He has since kick-started his farming projects.

The 69-year old diplomat served as ambassador to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and Cambodia between 1996 and 2003. He is also a former deputy head of mission in South Africa.

“The national parks will be supervising our activities so that we do not disturb wildlife. All my activities have been registered with the ministries of Environment and Agriculture.”

“If you think the settlements were irregular, you address that question to the relevant authorities. As far as I am concerned I followed the procedures. I am confident that whatever I am going to do will be supervised by (the department of) National Parks to ensure we co-exist with the wildlife,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s current ambassador to the UN, Albert Ranganai Chimbindi, is also a new settler in the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy.

Before assuming the UN position, Chimbindi was Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Ethiopia between 2014 and 2020. Previously, he had served as the permanent representative of Zimbabwe to the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

In an interview from his base in New York, Chimbindi said he intends producing both crops and livestock.

“I want to do both livestock and horticulture on that piece of land. There are some discussions going on between us and the ministry of Environment to help us on how to operate. There are also people from National Parks who gave us conditions on how we must operate,” he said.

Air Commodore Marcelino Jaya, who is based at Josiah Magama Tongogara Air Base in Gweru, has also settled in the conservancy.

 The senior Air Force officer did not respond to calls and WhatsApp messages.

The wildlife farmers accused Midlands minister of State for Provincial Affairs and Devolution, Senator Mavhima for orchestrating the settlement of high-profile people in the conservancy.

Mavhima chairs the Midlands committee which allocates land in the province and all allocations are given a final nod by his office.

However, in an interview, Mavhima denied any wrongdoing.

“This is not a banana republic. We are also not in the Stone Age era where I can just do what I want. There was a process which took over two years for people to be settled there.”

“We had committees and different ministries were involved. If the old farmers are aggrieved, they must say the law which was broken and go to court. They must not report their issues to the newspapers,” he said.

On 23 June 2019, President Mnangagwa presided over the inaugural African Union-United Nations Wildlife Economy Summit in Victoria Falls.

While he acknowledged the existence of smaller conservancies like Save Valley, Bubye Valley and Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, he curiously omitted mentioning the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy. The omission is now being used by people invading the conservancy to say the President does not recognise it as a protected area.

Investigations by The NewsHawks revealed that owners of the farms that constitute the conservancy sought to engage Environment minister Ndlovu when he visited the area early this year on government business.

They were not afforded an opportunity to enter the room where he was conducting the meeting on the basis that it was small and could only accommodate a few people to avoid violating a Covid-19 social distancing regulation. But some people who were in the room were not donning face masks.

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