Thursday, August 2, 2007
Zimbabwe's Wildlife Decimated by Economic Crisis
Zimbabwe is home to many tourist draws, including the spectacular Victoria Falls and teeming herds of elephants, such as the one seen here at Hwange National Park. But the country also has the world's highest inflation rate—causing such widespread poverty that hungry villagers and poachers have nearly wiped out the country's animals in some areas. Photograph by Jason Edwards/NGS
Zimbabwe's Wildlife Decimated by Economic Crisis
Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
August 1, 2007
Wildlife has been nearly wiped out on Zimbabwe's former private game ranches in the seven years since President Robert Mugabe began seizing and dividing the areas into small plots, a conservation group says.
Some 90 percent of animals have been lost since 2000, while the country has seen an estimated 60 percent of its total wildlife killed off to help ease massive economic woes, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force said in a report issued in June.
"[The animals] are being killed indiscriminately," said Johnny Rodrigues, the author of the report. "There's a lot of commercial poaching, there are people on the ground snaring these animals. This is where a lot of the destruction is coming from."
For its study, the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force gathered information and studied records about 62 game ranches. Fifty-nine reported losses, including the killings of a total of 75 rare black rhinoceroses and 39 leopards.
Most of the losses appeared among antelope, including 9,500 impalas, nearly 5,000 kudus, and 2,000 wildebeests.
The numbers help give a rough estimate of the environmental impact of Zimbabwe's recent descent into economic and political chaos.
Inflation—estimated at 5,000 percent—is now the worst in the world. On Wednesday the government introduced a 200,000 Zimbabwean dollar bill—which is worth only about $1 dollar U.S. on the black market.
The economic meltdown has had a wide-ranging and devastating impact on what is one of Africa's premier tourist draws. Zimbabwe's wildlife parks teem with herds of elephants and rhinos, as well as sights such as Victoria Falls.
Along with plummeting wildlife numbers, the country has seen massive deforestation and the neglect of some national parks.
At Hwange National Park, for example, animals have been killed off by severe drought, a problem exacerbated by scarce gasoline supplies.
There is no longer enough fuel to power the pumps that feed the watering pans where animals gather.
Until now there had only been anecdotal evidence of widespread slaughter on the private ranches that were occupied under President Mugabe's controversial land redistribution program.
That policy, implemented in 2000, is seen as a central reason for Zimbabwe's economic collapse.
Mugabe argued at the time that the reforms would reverse decades of discrimination and help Zimbabwe shed its colonial past, when wealthy white farmers snapped up some of the country's best land.
Yet once he expelled the farmers and subdivided the land, the farms that made Zimbabwe Africa's breadbasket collapsed, and some of the country's most basic foodstuffs became impossible to find.
And as a result, the subsistence farmers who moved in—often dubbed "war veterans" by the regime—began to hunt wildlife that had thrived, and in many cases, been protected on the ranches.
Government regulations meant to shield the animals have been disobeyed, and wildlife officials have been forced to focus their limited resources on Zimbabwe's national parks and reserves, where the damage is less severe.
According to the task force, Zimbabwe had 620 private game farms before the land seizures began, but now has 14. And of 14 conservancies before 2000, only one remains.
Because of the proliferation of snares, many of the animals on these former ranches have been maimed, report author Rodrigues said.
"They're telling the world they want the tourists to come back, but the tourists aren't going to come back because most of the animals you see nowadays have amputated legs," he said. "It's just like a rehabilitation center."
The report acknowledges that the findings are still preliminary—many of the farmers whose land was seized have left the country, so in some cases the group had to rely on hazy reports from people still near the former ranches.
"We are not claiming to 'know' how much wildlife has been lost," the report said. "We have just tried to make the most accurate estimate possible with very limited data to work with."
Still, the trend is a disaster, because Zimbabwe once had some of the world's most progressive and successful conservation policies.
Elephant populations there have boomed, and on conservation areas that are strictly monitored and controlled, rhinoceros populations are growing. (Related: "5-Country Conservation Area Would Aid Africa's Largest Elephant Herd" [April 4, 2007].)
Matter of Survival
Part of the reason for the decline is that poachers from neighboring countries have entered Zimbabwe to hunt its animals. Another is the booming trade in bush meat.
"It's a matter of survival," said George Kampamba, coordinator of the conservation nonprofit WWF's African Rhino Program. "For people to really survive, now that poverty levels are so high, they have to do what they're doing—which is the bush meat trade."
The government too has turned on the animals. Rodrigues said the government slaughtered a hundred elephants last year so their meat could be served as part of Independence Day celebrations.
And his group has also reported that Zimbabwe recently sold ivory to China in exchange for military hardware.
Wildlife destruction has become so severe that even Zimbabwe's authoritarian government is acknowledging mistakes.
"Errors that were made were not intentional," Environment Secretary Margaret Sangarwe told the state-owned Herald newspaper.
"An area of concern is the resettling of people in some areas meant for wildlife rearing, and ensuring that our wildlife is safe."
5-Country Conservation Area Would Aid Africa's Largest Elephant Herd
Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
April 4, 2007
Environment ministers from five southern African countries plan to turn a 110,833-square-mile (287,132-square-kilometer) chunk of land into a massive cross-border conservation zone.
The proposed parkland—spanning an area about the size of Nevada—would vastly increase roaming space for Africa's biggest elephant herd.
Estimated at 150,000 animals, the elephants presently concentrate in northern Botswana, where they heavily impact local vegetation.
Willem van Riet, chief executive of the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation, has been a major driving force behind transfrontier park development in southern Africa.
He said the proposed project would be a turning point for the entire region, fostering joint tourism development and nature conservation.
"It constitutes a complete refocus," he said. "It will connect [ecosystems] across national boundaries that in some instances have far more in common with each other than with most of the rest of their own countries."
The proposed conservation area would be called the Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area and would center heavily on the area's river systems.
KAZA would include the region of Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe and Botswana's Okavango Delta and Chobe Reserve, areas said to lend the project considerable prestige.
Also included would be Namibia's ecologically diverse Caprivi Strip and a vast, sparsely populated area spanning the Angola-Zambia border.
The KAZA area would differ from a transfrontier park, which actually links parks across national boundaries to form a single reserve.
There is a possibility that many of the 36 parks in the proposed area could open to each other across borders, although the parks are in various states of repair.
But the core idea, Van Riet said, is that member countries would promote conservation of shared wildlife and socio-economic development through ecotourism and related activities such as jointly regulated safari hunting.
At a ceremony at Victoria Falls last year, ministers of environmental affairs and tourism from the five countries signed a memorandum of understanding committing their governments to work toward establishment the shared parkland.
But residual landmines pose a major obstacle to the project, particularly in Angola, which suffered nearly four decades of anti-colonial and civil war that ended in 2002.
The proposed conservation area would skirt Cuito Canavale, a town that in 1988 saw the bloody closing battle between South African troops and the Cuban-supported fighters of Angola's now-ruling MPLA party.
Van Riet said the landmines seem concentrated mainly along a 50-mile (80-kilometer) strip of the Cuando River, which in places divides Angola and Zambia. Most Angolans from the area now live on the Zambian side of the river.
"I don't know of any plans yet to lift the mines," he said. "Outside help and money is going to be needed to do it."
Lucas Gakale, secretary to Botswana's ministry of environment, wildlife, and tourism, said the scheme could still significantly ease the pressure on his country's large elephant population.
"A plan we drew up in 1990 put the maximum number of elephants Botswana could carry at 60,000. But because culling was controversial, and because we did not want to attract international condemnation, we allowed numbers to grow," he said.
"[The population] is now put at up to 150,000, and we need somewhere for the animals to go," he added.
"Zambia and in particular Angola offer a way out. We are in fact already seeing elephants move into Angola. They seem to sense where the mines are because they pass them by."
Gakale chairs the five signatory countries' officials committee, which is responsible for taking the KAZA process forward. He said the next step is a full feasibility study.
But more urgently, he said, the individual governments must start talking with the local communities that stand to be affected.
The countries should start negotiations with local authorities and immigration, security, and disease-control establishments, he added.
"We are going to try to open adjoining parks across national boundaries and link others by corridors. We will need to do it in a way that will avoid large-scale resettlement," he said. "But the biggest challenge is going to be to get the cooperation of the various land users."
Werner Myburgh is the Peace Parks Foundation's project manager. He said only about 2.5 million people are estimated to live in the proposed parkland, which adds to its potential for being developed into an enormous protected area.
Angola's 76,832-square-mile (199,049-square-kilometer) Cuando Cubango province would make up a major portion of the proposed parkland.
After decades of war, the province today has only about 140,000 residents.
The conflict also took a heavy toll on the area's wildlife. Elephant ivory paid for weaponry, while other wildlife became bush meat for soldiers and famished villagers.
Myburgh said he recently flew over the area. "There were hardly any huts to be seen and no roads. I thought to myself, this is wild Africa, without game."
Cleared of minefields, he said, the area could offer a vast new home for Botswana's elephants.
Overall, Myburgh has high hopes for the ambitious project.
"The ministers involved are young, enthusiastic, and energetic," he said. "The political will exists, and there is the expertise and the funding coming in to see it through."
Posted by lmurx at 8:31 PM