MEMORY Ndlovu, a 43-year-old resident of Lupanda village in Lupane, recounts a harrowing tale which seemingly has no end.
Every year, she faces the ever-present danger of elephant attacks. One incident saw her narrowly escaping with her life, but she was left nursing injuries after escaping by running through thorn bushes.
Unfortunately, Ndlovu’s ordeal is not isolated.
The past decade has seen residents of Lupane at the receiving end of human-wildlife conflict.
An investigation conducted with support from the Voluntary Media Council Zimbabwe and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation revealed lives have been lost, people maimed and crops destroyed in the conflict.
Lupanda, a picturesque village straddling the boundaries of Lupane and Tsholotsho in the Sipepa region, finds itself in an escalating struggle as wildlife continues making incursions into areas of humam habitation.
The village is close to Hwange National Park and the Ngamo Sikumi Forest, creating an alluring, yet perilous tapestry of natural habitats.
Bushes close to Lupanda offer an open border to Hwange National Park. The area is also a transit route for elephants migrating between the park, forest, and adjoining human settlements.
Over the years, this pattern of wildlife migration has persisted. However, recent shifts in climatic conditions have introduced a new dynamic — elephants journeying as far as Lupane Dam to quench their thirst, causing disturbances in human settlements along this wildlife corridor.
The climate crisis has resulted in many water sources in the giant national park drying, hence the increased migration of elephants to Lupane Dam, several kilometres away.
“We’ve been victims of the conflict since the very beginning. The fear for our children’s safety, and even our own, permeates every aspect of our lives, daily,” Ndlovu says.
Situated in Matabeleland North province, and home to a steadily growing population of 198 600 people (according to the 2022 census), Lupane is also the provincial capital. It is a semi-arid rural area characterised by savannah climate with four distinct seasons, encouraging a mix of woodlands and grasslands.
Unlike Ndlovu who lived to tell her story, Michael Nyoni (18) of Gwaluba village is grappling with a tragic turn of events. After the heart-wrenching death of his uncle in an elephant attack, the already daunting life for this orphan took a harsher turn. The uncle was his only guardian, after he separated from his wife two years earlier.
The two had taken care of Michael since he was 10 years old.
“I lost my only support and had to drop out of school. To survive, I took to fishing, even though it’s fraught with dangers, including crocodile-infested waters. But I don’t have any options,” reveals Nyoni.
Our investigation brought us in contact with the grandchildren — aged 14 and 16 — of a tragic 81-year-old woman, whose life was abruptly ended by an elephant in Lake Alice village, Mthuphane area, south-east of Lupane.
The grandchildren’s lives have changed dramatically since her death, as they were forced to live with relatives.
Impact of climate crisis on wildlife
Our deep dive uncovers the compelling narrative of how climate change is influencing interactions between wildlife and humans. It is a story that unravels annually, with every species leaving a unique imprint on the scenario.
Lupane district, which primarily receives low rainfall, experiences summertime peaks influenced by the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The winter season is dry. The fierce heat of summer drives daily temperatures up to 40°C, counterbalanced by milder winters, plunging temperatures below 10°C.
The Lupane community, following the rhythm of the seasons, predominantly relies on subsistence farming. The community depends on the seasonal rains for their crops’ lifeblood. Notably, areas around ARDA Estate in Jotsholo make use of irrigation, drawing water from the nearby Shangani River.
Located near Lupane town centre, similarly, the Mpofu village draws water from the Bubi-Lupane Dam.
Our findings reveal that in the early 2000s conflicts with wildlife were mild and limited to baboons and a handful of scavengers.
However, the persistent scarcity of rains has over the years dried the food sources in the forests, the natural habitats of wild animals. Consequently, a significant shift of these animals has been observed over the years, as they move closer to human settlements from their original abodes, in search of food.
The ripple effects of climate change have transformed village life, leading to communities and wildlife relying on a singular water source.
Research in 2020 by Lupane State University’s Sibonokuhle Ndlovu shows that the last decade witnessed a disconcerting surge in temperatures simultaneously with a vital reduction in rainfall.
“Consequently, droughts have draped the district and the entire nation of Zimbabwe with aridity. Heavily reliant on bountiful rainfall, Zimbabwe’s agricultural landscape is glaringly prone to the tumult of climate change and variability,” the report reads.
“Despite incessant crop failures and dwindling yields, human persistence has reciprocated with traditional farming practices.”
Investigations show that encroaching wildlife, driven by desperation for water and sustenance, has added a new dimension to the local villagers’ ongoing predicament.
Rising human-wildlife conflict
In an interview, Wellington Mthembo, an executive officer for natural resources and environment (also head of the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) at Kusile Rural District Council, said around 2009, only three wards were facing human-wildlife conflict.
Kusile Rural District Council comprises 28 wards. Between 2009 and 2012, a sharp increase was observed, including in previously unaffected wards. The council said the conflict is now in all wards.
“All the wards are now affected. Most of the problem animals in our area are lions, crocodile, elephants and hyenas. The wildlife is attacking both humans and wildlife. This is necessitated due to our location. Our communal lands are bordered by forested areas which are dwelling areas for the wildlife. We have two wildlife conservancies in our area, the Gwayi and Kana Block,” said Mthembo.
Lupane villagers are caught in a conundrum — they cannot shield their crops from elephants’ onslaught. Food security has been compromised as a result. The hostility extends beyond the fields, to their livestock, with hyenas marking out goats, cattle and donkeys as their prey.
“I’ve watched my crops destroyed by elephants, season after season, leaving behind nothing but bare ground. More tragically, villagers have even lost their lives to these creatures,” recounts Simelisiyo Ncube, a local resident.
Ackim Ngwenya, a villager who tragically lost 10 cattle to hyenas in 2019, expressed his disappointment with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) and Kusile Rural District Council for not providing enough support to affected families.
“The pain deepens when we appeal for help to ZimParks and our district council, only to see our pleas falling on deaf ears,” laments Ngwenya.
However, ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo defends the authority, insisting they respond to reports of wild animals venturing into human settlements in the quickest time possible. Farawo acknowledges the unfortunate reality of these incidents impoverishing communities.
“This human-wildlife conflict is a sad phenomenon that extends beyond Lupane and is prevalent in various parts of our country,” contends Farawo.
In 2017 and 2018, Campfire underwent extensive review with assistance from the European Union (EU). Additionally, a restructuring exercise was carried out within ZimParks during these years to elevate its capability for preserving and managing the nation’s wildlife.
Despite these efforts, Mthembo, the head of Campfire at Kusile council, is concerned about the shortage of immediate resources needed to combat human-wildlife conflict.
“We are scrambling due to the lack of necessary equipment. Delayed responses result in significant damage to livestock because often, the conflict sites are located in remote regions. The dearth of manpower and complicated procedures to procure ammunition add to the woes. Currently, we are only able to address about 20% of the human-wildlife conflict situations due to these constraints,” Mthembo said.
The cost for local villagers is steep, both crops and lives are being lost to wildlife annually.
Clemence Nkata, a local villager, who was plunged into despair after losing his four goats in 2021 to marauding hyenas, is struggling to take care of his six grandchildren.
He had hoped to wean himself off the remittances sent home by his children in South Africa.
A call for accountability
In recent years, devastating encounters with wildlife have escalated in Lupane district. As recent as 2017 and 2020 respectively, a 28-year old man and an 81-year old woman lost their lives during elephant attacks in separate events.
The man was tending his fields, and the elderly woman was making her way to a nearby school when she met her fate.
Organisations such as the Rural Communities Empowerment Trust (RUCET) are working towards mitigating these tragedies. Along with KRDC, they have been implementing initiatives in the affected regions, including Sotami and Somwara.
The wildlife influx in Lupane, according to RUCET, can be traced back to the thriving conditions at Bubi-Lupane Dam.
“Unfortunately, encounters with this wildlife, especially elephants, have often had fatal consequences for the locals. Lions and hyenas are also causing trouble in areas like Mzola and Dandanda,” said Casual Moyo, the RUCET programmes officer.
Through its Campfire office, the Kusile Rural District Council (KRDC) continually aims to control the proliferation of dangerous animals in these regions.
Alfred Sihwa, the director of Sibanye Animal Welfare and Conservation Trust, stresses that a revised Wildlife Act could provide a solution to the unfolding crisis. A reformed Act would respond better to the growing needs of these communities as the current Act is archaic — drafted in 1975.
“Our core philosophy rests on achieving welfare and harmony among humans, animals, and the environment by quelling human-wildlife conflicts. In our pursuit for peace and sustenance, we believe that interdependence among species is the only viable way to ensure the survival of plants, humans, and animals,” says Sihwa.
ZimPark spokesperson Farawo points out that the root of these conflicts often lies in the overpopulation of animals. ZimParks has acknowledged receiving numerous complaints about wildlife destroying crops and killing livestock.
Owning cattle in Lupane is not merely about livestock or subsistence farming. It is a symbol of wealth, a means of transport, and the start of the crop farming cycle with animal-drawn ploughs.
There is a Parks and Wildlife Bill underway. The proposed Bill aims to ensure the sustainable utilisation and development of wildlife resources. Pending its passage, the Bill will repeal the Quelea (Control) Act (Chapter 19:10), and the Trapping of Animals Act (Control) (Chapter 20:21). It proposes the creation of a Human-Wildlife Conflict Relief Fund to bring financial relief to victims of human-wildlife conflict.
When Nyasha Mutyambizi, the director of legal and corporate services at ZimParks, addressed the Zimbabwe Animal Law Conference on 13 September 2023, she highlighted the government’s efforts to address human-wildlife conflict.
“We aren’t just offering monetary support with the proposed Human-Wildlife Conflict Relief Fund,” Mutyambizi explained. “As part of the review process, we aim to assist victims who have lost a limb or a loved one to wildlife, or those who have been injured. Our current conflict mitigation strategies involve hunting, culling, sterilisation, translocation, and the use of barriers such as fences and plant fences.”
Looking at the structures and transparency of the proposed relief fund, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela) — a prominent environmental rights watchdog — stressed that more work is needed.
“Public consultation is crucial before its implementation,” Zela advised.
Over the years, ZimParks has faced immense challenges in adequately compensating people affected by wildlife attacks. Increased incidents have resulted in many locals losing their lives, their livestock, and crucial income from crops destroyed by wild animals. Statistics highlight the escalating crisis.
Farawo revealed there were 71 deaths and 50 injuries recorded in 2021, an increase from 60 deaths and 40 injuries in the previous year. In the first two months of 2022, a total of 68 lives were lost to wildlife attacks.
In an effort to prevent wildlife-human conflict and contain outbreaks of diseases like anthrax and foot and mouth, the 2023 National Budget has allocated ZW$514.2 million to fence the remaining 42 kilometres at Gonarezhou National Park. However, this figure is not nearly enough to cover the cost of human-wildlife conflict damage nationwide, including the Lupane area.
Shining a light on the unfortunate state of non-compliance, the Auditor-General’s report for the financial year ending 31 December 2020 exposed glaring discrepancies. The report was presented to Parliament in 2022, revealing local authorities’ difficult circumstances.
The Auditor-General said: “I strongly urge Local Authorities to diligently update their financial statements. By doing so, we can bolster both transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, this audit exposed a raft of weaknesses, with governance, procurement, revenue collection, and debt management topping the list.”
To make matters more worrisome, just 41 out of 92 local authorities managed to submit their current (2020) financial statements for audit. The remaining 51 had not filed their accounts as of 30 November 2021.
Our investigation discovered that the 2019 financial statements for Lupane local board were yet to pass the finalisation phase, and Kusile Rural District Council had not even made its submissions yet.