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SOS Rhino : In the News : A Struggle for Survival, as Man Engages Hungry Animals

A Struggle for Survival, as Man Engages Hungry Animals


James Hall

MAPUTO, Jun 20 (IPS) - A battle is raging throughout the African sub-continent between subsistence farmers, usually the poorest villagers of the region, and game parks over crop destruction wrought by hungry wild animals.

” A wart hog doesn't recognise property, only food,” says Sam Kunene, a farmer in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

” To a buffalo or other foraging animal, there's no difference between a herb that grows wild in the bush and a stalk of maize, except the latter is more tasty,” says Sipho Vilane, a game ranger in Swaziland.

” As for elephants, they can destroy a farmer's field in minutes. Sometimes it isn't even food they are after. They can just be destructive,” Vilane says.

It is not a new battle, but for millions of peasant farmers, it is a matter of life and livelihood. Game animals are wild, and if their movements are not restricted they will wander outside the parametres of parks and into neighbouring communities. Their agenda is simply to find new supplies of food.

It is a worrying problem for the area's proliferating number of game parks, which depend on the good will of neighbours.

” I totally sympathise with a farmer who sees his entire crop wiped out by animals,” Ted Reilly, Swaziland's top nature conservationists and founder of the country's park system, told IPS. ”How is he going to feed his family?”

Farmers living near game parks have little recourse but to guard their fields, and scare away game animals when they appear.

” It is not easy to scare an elephant,” Kunene says.

But farmers are hamstrung by tough game protection laws that make it a crime to kill protected species. While sympathetic to his neighbours' plight, game park owner Reilly recommended that they contact the park, so that game rangers might capture the runaway animals. Farmers complain they have no phones, and by the time rangers would arrive, crop damage would already be inflicted.

” It only takes minutes. Often the animals arrive at night, when we are asleep. When we get up in the morning, we see our maize is gone,” Kunene says.

In Kenya, the authorities have been responding to the farmers' pleas. This year, Kenya game wardens have shot dead at least ten jumbos; last year they shot two, and farmers killed another 10.

In Namibia, private developers are being encouraged to purchase the animals to prevent clashes with peasants.

'Farmers versus the myriad members of the African menagerie' has been a theme for a century. In the first half of the 1900s, wild animals were shot as ”pests”, and whole areas were cleared of animals in preparation of land cultivation by white farmers and large-scale agricultural enterprises. In Swaziland, professional hunters were used to clear the lowveld of thousands of herds of animals, to make way for sugar plantations.

Bounties were offered for African buffalo and antelope when diseases like rinderpest were rampant. Cattle owners feared diseases that spread in the wild would infect their herds.

Today, large herds of wild animals are worth their weight in tourist gold. Most foreign visitors to Southern Africa flock to Tanzania's Serengeti, Botswana's Central Kalahari or South Africa's Kruger National Park to see the Big Five - elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino - and other game animals in their native habitats.

” What were once 'pests' are now big business,” Reilly said.

Last year 9,000 foreign tourists hunted 34,000 animals in South Africa, turning the country's booming hunting industry into an R800-million-a-year (about 107 million U.S. dollars) foreign exchange earner, according to official statistics.

Hunting is also popular in Zimbabwe.

Last year Zimbabwe earned about 30 million U.S. dollars from sport hunting at its wildlife safari areas, up from 22 million U.S. dollars in 2001, according to the country's department of national parks and wildlife management.

Tanzania, too, offers good sport hunting for foreigners. Between 1989 and 1993 the government revenue from the hunting industry increased from around 2.5 million U.S. dollars to 7.4 million U.S. dollars. In 2002, the government earned 9.3 million U.S. dollars from tourist hunting, says Tanzania's ministry of natural resources and tourism.

In 2003, it is no longer big agriculture that is concerned with wild animals, which have been hunted to extinction in most parts of the sub-continent. Now it is another endangered species, the small landholding or peasant farmer, who must contend with the growing tourism industry.

Tourism operators have governments on their side in the fight to protect game animals. Southern African nations look to tourism as a perfect sustainable growth industry. Tourism draws in hard currency, helps national debts and balance of payment worries, and provides the incentive for protect the environment.

Game parks are growing in number by several dozen a year throughout the region, as are nature reserves, national parks and government-protected ecosystems. At the same time, national populations are growing. More farmers are in competition for agrarian land. They are being forced into marginal areas, and are exploiting lands near game parks where no cultivation had been undertaken before.

One game park ranger who chose not to give his name, though he said his views are shared by other park workers and environmentalists, said, ”The little family farms add nothing to the economy. They cannot create food for a whole year for the family. People still need town jobs to bring in cash. But these farms are damaging to the environment.”

The ranger also noted that some park fencing is stolen by neighbours. ”They don't use it to fence their fields, which they need to do if they are complaining about warthogs. They just sell it,” he said.

Reilly warned that farmers whose fields are damaged have a right to file a claim with a park, and an investigation would be conducted to see whether game animals were responsible. ”But they mustn't become vigilantes, and start killing protected species. This has been done in the past as an excuse for poaching, and the perpetrators just get into trouble,” Reilly said.

Nature conservationists told IPS that the way out of the dilemma is to involve the communities around game parks in the park operations. Rather than damage the environment with a growing number of unprofitable little farms to accommodate the population boom, some communities have pooled their land resources, and started their own game parks.

” Community-owned game parks are growing in popularity,” said Simaye Mamba, of Swaziland's National Trust Commission, which runs two game parks. ”We have several in this country. They are raising the standard of living for community members, by providing jobs. They are unique cultural tourism attractions. Guests can visit homesteads to see how Africans live,” Mamba said.

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