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Zimbabwe’s quandary over lethal elephant attacks

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Tinashe Farawo was tasked with delivering the mutilated body of a 30-year-old farmer killed by an elephant in northern Zimbabwe to his bereaved family.

It is something that Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) rangers are forced to do on a regular basis as they police a conflict between humans and encroaching wildlife. The farmer from Mbire district was one of 46 people killed in Zimbabwe this year by wild animals.

Hwange National Park, a large nature reserve in northwestern Zimbabwe spanning 14,600 square kilometres (5,637 square miles), can support 15,000 elephants.

Despite this, officials estimate that the population is now around 55,000, with many people migrating to neighbouring areas in search of food and water.

A single elephant can consume up to 200 litres (44 gallons) of water per day, as well as 400 kg (62st) of tree leaves and bark, causing great hardship to already impoverished subsistence farmers.

Mr Farawo believes that communities living on the frontlines are being ignored as delegates from more than 180 countries gather in Panama for the two-week meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

“You can’t always come up with solutions in air-conditioned buildings,” a spokesperson for Zimparks told the BBC.

Zimbabwe has proposed to Cites that certain restrictions on the trade of raw ivory and elephant leather be relaxed, arguing that the proceeds could help to conserve the world’s growing elephant population.

Mr Farawo wonders how those considering the proposal can understand the plight of communities in Hwange if they have never visited the area.

We don’t want aid’

In May, Zimbabwe hosted an African Elephant Summit, but it was unable to bring the continent’s countries together to fight the 1989 Cites ban on global ivory trade.

Only Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana supported Zimbabwe’s request for permission to sell its ivory stockpiles, which were mostly from elephants that died naturally and were worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The same countries also encourage trophy hunting as a means of funding community projects for those who live near game parks.

“We don’t want to rely on aid; we want the opportunity to trade so that we can fund our programmes,” Mr Farawo said.

Kenya, however, did not attend the summit because it is opposed to both hunting and the sale of ivory. In 2016, the East African country burned its ivory stockpile, which had been confiscated from poachers and illegal traders.

Although Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, and Senegal have proposed to Cites that elephants in southern Africa be upgraded.

Kenya-based Elephant Neighbours Centre, Jim Nyamu, argues that ending the ivory trade in southern Africa would have ramifications in East Africa, where elephant numbers remain a concern.

He claims that Cites’ decision to allow one-time ivory sales from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to Japan and China in 1997 and 2008 increased poaching.

“No country should be encouraged to work in isolation,” a campaigner against poaching told the BBC.

Mr Nyamu believes that eco-tourism, rather than hunting, has the potential to bring in more money for communities.

Wild animals in towns

On the ground, however, there is little support for this in Botswana, which controversially resumed trophy hunting in 2019 in order to reduce its burgeoning 130,000-strong elephant population.

Elephants outnumber the 28,000-person population in Botswana’s Chobe district, which borders Zimbabwe. The area’s national park, like nearby Hwange, is unfenced.

Rebecca Banika, a Chobe traditional leader, told the BBC that her community received $560,000 in hunting proceeds and tusker meat last year.

“We are suffering, but even though we are enraged, we do not fight the animals because we benefit from them,” she explained.

Frank Limbo, a 64-year-old retired banker turned farmer, says wild animal sightings were uncommon in his youth but are now common in the Chobe town of Kasane.

They wander into backyards, killing or maiming several of his relatives and destroying entire food harvests overnight.

He’s also a survivor of two terrifying wildlife attacks.

A lioness was chasing his pet dog on his farm in 2004 when it turned on him; fortunately for him, an armed friend shot her dead.

A herd of elephants passed by while he was preparing his fields for planting eleven years later. Three of them returned moments later and charged him.

“They all came wailing, like they do when they attack, and I was also yelling and wailing.”

He was rescued by hiding behind a tree: “They couldn’t get all the way to me, but one of them gorged me from my knee to my upper thigh. I assumed I was dead.”

Some conservationists in southern Africa also question the figures used to make elephant-related decisions.

To that end, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Kaza TFCA), which includes reserves in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, held a joint aerial elephant census in August, the results of which will be published next year.

It came after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which keeps a “red list” of threatened species, declared African savanna elephants endangered last year.

It cited population decline – a 95% drop over the last century due to poaching, shrinking habitats, and an increasing human population.

According to Netsai Bollmann of Kaza TFCA, the data used was based on estimates.

The elephant census initiative demonstrates that countries in southern Africa, where elephant populations are increasing, want greater control over what happens to their wildlife.

In Zimbabwe, which has just approved plans to establish a fund to assist people attacked by wildlife, Edson Gandiwa, a wildlife researcher who works at Zimparks, says the elephant conservation debate is too emotionally charged.

“They are a flagship or keystone species. [However], it’s not just about elephants; it’s also about biodiversity. We require the presence of all animals,” he told the BBC.

Mr Limbo agrees, saying that international groups should consult the 2.5 million people who live near Kaza TFCA wildlife areas before implementing global policies.

He insists that the attack has not changed his feelings about elephants: “It’s part of living in this area, we love them.”

“They are our natural resources; we cannot do without them; we must coexist.” But it should be a win-win situation.”

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