By The Independent
Improving community attitudes towards conservation and making them guardians of the environment can reduce wildlife crimes, conservationists in Zimbabwe have said.
Communities’ participation in managing the natural environment is key, as locals also adopt management behaviours that lessen conflicts where animals pose a direct and recurring threat to the livelihood and safety of people.
Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) Principal Wildlife Intelligence Officer, Amos Gwema, said the participation of local communities is essential for the success of conservation initiatives and in tackling wildlife related crime.
“We get all the information by working with the community, as poachers come from the community and dispose of wildlife products there,” said Gwema to journalists at a conservation workshop in the northwestern Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls in April 2022.
“Before, the community was not well involved in conservation, and would fold their arms believing that dealing with wildlife was the duty of ZimParks, police or the government. But my approach is to work with the community. Together we’ve made considerable achievements.”
Gwema, who is responsible for Wildlife Crimes Investigation and Intelligence at ZimParks, said the authority has made several efforts to educate communities on the importance of conservation.
“We have been going to communities with ex-convicts, poets and drama clubs, teaching people about the dangers of committing wildlife crime. I am happy to report there has been positive feedback,” he said, noting a community close to Hwange recently found a dead elephant and reported the matter to the authorities instead of scavenging the ivory to sell.
“Law enforcement agencies recovered the ivory and to say thank you to the community, we engaged one of our key stakeholders, Bhejane Trust, who paid the community that provided the information. This shows the community is taking a positive approach towards conservation, instead of thinking of selling the ivory.”
However, the ZimParks official lamented that outsiders often take advantage of communities, by coercing them into crime.
“People from urban areas go to them and say, ‘if you give us ivory, we will give you so much money’,” he highlighted, citing the 2013 cyanide poisoning case where over 300 elephants at Hwange National Park were killed, as a prime example.
“Where did we get information? The community is the one who informed us about the vehicle and the homestead in which it was parked. We searched the homestead, recovered cyanide and the case opened up, leading to the arrest of 23 persons in 2013.”
Gwema said since the poisoning of elephants was a national disaster, the 23 accused from Tsholotsho, mostly men and one woman, were sentenced to not less than 14 years each.
“The minimum sentence for possession of ivory is nine years, but the magistrate can sentence up to 20 years so the sentence was within the range as it was a national problem.”
He also added that investigations revealed it was a cartel working with the 23 convicted persons.
“The vehicle belonged to people from Bulawayo. They were the ones who brought the cyanide and taught the community that ‘the easiest way to kill an elephant is to use cyanide,” Gwema said.
“Yes, we traced the people from Bulawayo and arrested them but they only paid a fine and were released, because during that time the punishment for possession of cyanide was three months imprisonment or pay a fine. We couldn’t find ivory in their possession.”
Unfortunately, Gwema noted the 23 Tsholotsho locals were jailed as they were found with ivory from elephants in their possession.
“They were waiting to give the ivory to the people from Bulawayo. In the end, they were the ones with severe sentences while the others are still free,” said the ZimParks official.
“What happens is people tell the community, ‘If you get ivory, we’ll buy it for US$50 (£38) per kilogramme.’ An average sub-adult elephant can have 20 to 30 kilogrammes of ivory. If you multiply $50 by 30 kilogrammes it means US$1,500 (£1,150) and to the villagers, it’s a lot of money.”
According to the ZimParks official, the official value of ivory is US$250 (£191) per kilogramme. Gwema noted that wildlife stakeholders also assist the authority behind the scenes by giving incentives to informants.
“We do have, more or less, a contract that if you assist us, we pay you this way. It is unfortunate the government is not giving attractive rewards hence the involvement of the stakeholders behind the scene,” he said.
Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust Wildlife Manager, Roger Parry concurred that communities were vital in making sure conservation thrived and the organisation implements a programme called ‘Community Guardians’ where locals play an active role in mitigating human wildlife conflict.
“Historically, a lot of communities used to think wildlife is someone else’s problem and would let their cattle roam freely. But the Community Guardians are changing the way people think about human wildlife conflict. They are becoming responsible for that conflict. They are the ones who live with the wildlife and [better to] have [mitigation] tools rather than rely on someone else,” he said.
“The Community Guardians have communities chasing lions and are looking after cattle using protective mobile bomas, showing that people are starting to grasp that sustainability is very important.”