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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : October 2001 : Invasions Threaten Peace Park

Invasions Threaten Peace Park

Mail & Guardian
October 25, 2001

Experts warn that south-eastern Zimbabwe is sitting on a foot-and-mouth time bomb, reports Jenny Sharman

In the excitement about the formation of the Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou trans-frontier park, a looming problem has been overlooked: land invasions in the Zimbabwe section of the park.

The planned "peace park" includes Zimbabwe's second-largest game park, the Gonarezhou National Park and its wildlife environs, along with Kruger park and a large slice of state-owned land in Mozambique's Coutada 16 conservation area - a total of 35 000km2.

Last November, as the agreement was being signed to establish the park, sections of Gonarezhou were being occupied, cleared and set alight by residents of neighbouring villages and "war veterans".

The invasion of Gonarezhou is the latest in a line of crises to hit Zimbabwe's wildlife since the current "fast-track" resettlement programme moved into key conservation areas.

As a member of a proposed peace park, it is ironic that historically Gonarezhou has rarely been at peace. In Shona gona-re-zhou means "abode of elephants", but for the elephant it has not been a safe abode; poaching has long been prevalent in this south-eastern corner of Zimbabwe.

In the late 1960s large-scale agriculture began encroaching on the area, and poaching, coupled with tsetse fly controls that included bush burning and shooting, resulted in the destruction of 55 000 large animals. In response, Alan Wright, a local district commissioner, helped establish a wildlife refuge and a poaching control corridor along the Mozambique border. About 5,000km2 of prime wilderness was designated as a reserve, and in 1975 this corner of Zimbabwe was declared a national park.

The local Shangaan people were forced to resettle outside the park's boundaries - an act that has caused major discontent in the area ever since.

The formation of a park did little to stop the unnatural deaths of the resident elephants. During the war of independence Gonarezhou was landmined extensively and elephant and buffaloes are still being maimed by the mines.

In the 1980s and 1990s poaching by Mozambican guerrillas, fighting their own civil war across the border, also took its toll. It is estimated that between 1987 and 1988 alone nearly 1,000 elephants and 200 black rhinos were poached from the park. It is not surprising that elephants in Gona-rezhou respond to the presence of humans with either fear or aggression.

Now Josiah Hungwe, the Governor of Masvingo, who is already responsible for the invasion of privately owned wildlife conservancies, has been encouraging families of the previously evicted Shangaan, as well as opportunistic "war veterans", to take over 11 000ha within Gonarezhou, north and south of the Runde river.

The situation escalated as Agritex (the Agricultural and Rural Extension Department) began demarcating and pegging out plots for allocation within the park.

The invasion appears to have been carried out without the permission - or knowledge - of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. In fact environment minister Francis Nhema initially denied it: "What has happened is that some cattle strayed into the park but our guys from parks are working on that. There are no people physically within the park at all," he said as news of the invasion began to spread.

It soon became apparent that Nhema was wrong. A senior national parks officer wrote the following in a letter to his headquarters shortly after the takeover: "The Agritex officer stated that his teams pegged some 520 plots but the area had capacity to take 750 settlers ... Cattle are being grazed daily inside the park. The numbers are never less than 500 in the park per day. The cattle fence has been put down, allowing free movement of cattle in and around the park."

The removal of fencing and driving of cattle into buffalo land could result in a serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Mike Clark, regional chairperson of the Masvingo Commercial Farmers' Union, says "we have no foot-and-mouth vaccine due to the forex shortage. We are therefore sitting on a foot-and-mouth time bomb."

Clark has found evidence of cattle in the park and substantial destruction of natural habitat.

"When we followed one of the cattle trails we came across people building elaborate Shangaan-style huts, about 6km into the reserve."

Raoul du Toit of the World Wide Fund for nature's Zimbabwe office has said that the issues involved are more complex than simply a threat to the integrity of the national park. The Shangaan people do have a serious land claim to this area but, Du Toit says, "the issue needs to be assessed in the context of the land crisis which is engulfing the nearby conservancies".

"The biodiversity value of the basalt plain that has been invaded within Gonarezhou is relatively low. If this land claim is to be resolved, this may act as a pressure-relief valve that would reduce the land invasion threat in conservancy areas with higher biodiversity value. However, the resolution of this land claim within Gonarezhou must take into account the constraints on dry-land agriculture and a wildlife-based land-reform model must be considered.

"The other crucial factor to take into account is that any resettlement must not cut off the wildlife corridors between the park and adjacent private wildlife areas such as Malilangwe and Save valley."

There has been extensive poaching in the neighbouring Save and Chiredzi conservancies since the government's resettlement programme began more than a year ago. The poaching is clearly commercial in nature and, it would appear, politically motivated.

Recently, in response to the arrest of nine poachers for having abducted a game scout, the war veterans began dropping off poachers by vehicle throughout Save.

"One must remember that this is not a spontaneous groundswell, but totally orchestrated by the party [Zanu-PF]," says Clark.

Malilangwe, Save and Chiredzi are key areas adjacent to Gonarezhou. They, and the communities involved in various Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources and trust projects, all stand to benefit from the peace park as long as the corridor that joins them with the park remains free of human settlement. Once the peace park is operational, there is enormous potential in creating a wider trans-frontier conservation area extending into these private and communal lands. The entire economy of south-eastern Zimbabwe could benefit as a result.

However, these issues are clearly not being debated - or even considered - in Zimbabwe's political scramble for land. Instead of limiting the invasion to a controllable area, it has now been extended along the park boundary, and along the boundary with Malilangwe. Derek de la Harpe, Malilangwe's director, reports that these plots have already been extensively cleared. He says that "any development isolating Malilangwe and the conservancies from the park will in the long term be to everyone's detriment. Malilangwe is committed to assisting with restocking the park once our own wildlife populations have been restored to an acceptable level. This will not be possible if the connection between the two areas is cut."

Residents in the Chizvirizvi resettle-ment area were hoping to involve themselves in a wildlife and hunting/ tourism project based on the proposed peace park. If their land does not adjoin the park there is little chance of it happening.

The Zimbabwe government publicly abandoned its plans for resettlement in the Gonarezhou National Park in July after a meeting of the trans-frontier park ministerial committee. However, fires and bush clearing within the park and along its boundaries continues unabated. Hungwe continues to insist that the demarcated plots will be settled, despite official promises to the contrary.

There are already suggestions that the removal of the fence has been disastrous for the region's livestock. Clark has heard reports that "several hundred head [of cattle] have died from suspected theileriosis, as there are no dipping facilities. Through my experience this is transmitted by the tick, Rhipicephalus zambeziensis, which occurs through buffalo/cattle transmission.

"The ownership dispute should urgently be addressed by government so that effective disease control barriers can be erected."

"The ownership dispute should urgently be addressed by government so that effective disease control barriers can be erected."

Copyright Mail & Guardian. Distributed by All Africa Global Media




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