By Bulawayo 24 News
In Zimbabwe, landmines affect not only local populations but also their precious livestock and wildlife. Thanks to an initial start-up grant from the US government, followed by another grant and strong support from the Swiss Embassy in Harare, APOPO is set to begin clearing landmines along the Cordon Sanitaire minefield that affects the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor this month. APOPO’s goal is to clear the assigned area by Zimbabwe’s 2025 landmine-free deadline, releasing local populations and endangered wildlife from the threat of landmines and opening up eco-tourism opportunities.
During Zimbabwe’s Liberation War of the 1970s, the Rhodesian Army laid massive minefields to prevent guerrilla fighters from entering the country, including a 37-kilometre-long minefield in the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor. In addition to posing a threat to people and impeding free movement, the landmines prevent the safe migration of the large elephant herds between Gonarezhou and Kruger National Parks, which threatens the viability of the elephant population and can lead to conflict with people when the elephants damage their crops or otherwise interfere with their daily activities. The Sengwe Wildlife Corridor is meant to function as a natural pressure release valve that lets wildlife move on before they overpopulate an area and create strain on the local communities.
Tess Tewelde, APOPO Zimbabwe Program Manager, said: “We are very enthusiastic and honoured to take part in clearing the heavily mined areas along the Zimbabwe, Mozambique border to allow not only local communities use their land freely and without fear, but to allow safe movement for endangered wildlife and support overall conservation efforts.”
Landmines and Wildlife
The Sengwe Wildlife Corridor is a specifically designated area aimed at allowing free movement of wildlife between South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. The deadly landmines affect the wildlife who call the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) home, which stands as one of the world’s largest conservation areas, spanning South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The landmines have remained in place for over four decades and cause a serious threat to threatened wildlife such as elephant, lion, and endangered wild dog as well as local communities who desperately need the land for grazing and agriculture.
The Ambassador of Switzerland, H.E. Mr. Niculin Jäger, said: “The Government of Switzerland is happy to support APOPO’s demining activities in the Sengwe Wildlife Corridor as this will help the local community regain their economic footing through accessing previously contaminated land for agricultural production – something that they have not been able to do for the past 40 years. The process will also support greater opportunities for transnational tourism between Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa.”
As a structural barrier, the landmines scare away safari and conservation-focused eco-tourism operators. Kruger National Park receives a massive influx of tourists (over 1,800,000 a year), which could potentially travel up the Sengwe Corridor and into Gonarezhou National Park without requiring a visa or leaving the conservation area. Currently Gonarezhou National Park receives virtually no international tourists. If even a small fraction of the Kruger National Park tourists made it to Gonarezhou National Park, the positive economic implications for Zimbabwe would be significant.
Thanks to the generosity of APOPO’s donors including the Swiss Embassy in Harare and the US government, APOPO has already begun training its teams and hope to begin operations on January 5th, 2021. APOPO estimates it will find and destroy about 15,300 anti-personnel landmines over the performance period. The total task along the CORSAN is around 7.23 million m2 and APOPO believes that it should be able to complete the task by 2025 or before with consistent and additional donor support. During the first year of operations, APOPO will demine both priority areas of the CORSAN as well as an adjacent road, which will be key to operational logistics moving forward.
Throughout the project period, APOPO will liaise closely with local village and government leaderships, as well as the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GCT), who are responsible for development of conservation efforts and eco-tourism in the park. The coordination will ensure APOPO’s demining efforts are aligned with both conservation and development priorities of the region.