Parks and private conservancies in Zimbabwe


Zimbabwe was only spending US$10per square kilometre on its parks to protect wildlife when the international standard was US$200-250 per square kilometre and South Africa was spending as much as US$6 000.

This was said by one of the former parks managers who was commenting on how poaching had become rampant on both national parks and private conservancies.

Zimbabwe had approximately 49 000 KM2 of state-owned protected areas which included national parks, safari areas, recreational parks, sanctuaries, botanical gardens, botanical reserves and forestry lands.

The most significant of these were:

  •  Hwange/Kazuma/Zambezi National Parks,
  • Matetsi and Deka Safari Areas
  • Gona-Re-Zhou National Park
  • Matusadona and Mana Pools National Parks,
  • Charara, Sibilobilo, Hurungwe, Sapi, Chewore, Dande, and Doma Safari Areas

It also had at least five officially-recognised, privately-owned conservancies.

These were:

  • Save Valley Conservancy,
  • Bubiana Conservancy,
  • Chiredzi River Conservancy,
  • Bubi River Conservancy, and
  • Malilangwe Conservancy.


Full cable:

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Reference ID






2003-07-25 07:54

2011-08-30 01:44


Embassy Harare

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.










E. O. 12958: N/A


SUBJECT: Environmental Impact of the Current Crises on

Zimbabwe’s Wildlife


1. Summary: This report, focusing on the status of wildlife

in Zimbabwe, will be the first of several related reports on

Zimbabwe’s deteriorating environmental situation. The

combination of land seizures, economic pressure, general

lawlessness, and hunger have taken a heavy toll on

Zimbabwe’s wildlife. Attempts to quantify the situation are

difficult, but at the most basic level, it is possible to

estimate the impact of poaching on Zimbabwe as follows, from

least affected to most affected:

— large animals in national parks

(negligible impact, possibly 2.5%);

— large animals in conservancies

(minimal impact, possibly 5%);

— protected animals (e.g., black rhino) in national parks

(limited impact, possibly 4-5%);

— protected animals (e.g., black rhino) in conservancies

(limited impact, possibly 5-6%);

— plains animals in national parks

(significant impact, in some areas as high as 30-40%);

— plains animals in conservancies

(high impact, in some areas as high as 60%);

— plains animals on private farms in commercial

agricultural regions

(catastrophic impact, upwards of 90%).

Although these numbers and percentages are estimates, and

subject to the inaccuracies inherent in estimation, the

scope of the problem cannot be overstated. Unless steps are

taken to limit the impact of the current depredation on

Zimbabwe’s wildlife, the country will face a bleak

environmental future when the dust finally settles. End



2. While Zimbabwe has received widespread condemnation for

the devastating impact of poaching on wildlife, few reports

have documented the full extent of the damage. Poaching —

both on private and public land — has escalated

dramatically due to numerous factors, including widespread

hunger, movement of “settlers” into lands previously

dedicated to wildlife, and the general breakdown of law and

order. Many poachers kill animals in an attempt to feed

their families. Many settlers kill animals while clearing

new land and attempting to establish dominion over newly-

occupied territory. In other incidents, commercial

operators are taking advantage of the relative chaos by

marketing “bush meat” and smuggling rhino horns. Some

highly subjective claims, such as one group’s allegations

that “Ninety percent of Zimbabwe’s wildlife has been

slaughtered,” have gained widespread circulation despite the

lack of empirical evidence. However, while it is clear that

wildlife has suffered from the current political crisis,

quantifying the damage remains a Herculean task.


3. Many poachers throughout the country rely on wire

snares, which indiscriminately kill any animal unfortunate

enough to stray within reach. In other areas, communal

farmers or settlers use packs of hunting dogs to flush and

run down antelope, zebra, or other plains animals. Some

landowners have reported a pattern of settler activity in

which a settler will build a small stick-and-thatch hut as a

hunting base, and proceed to poach all animals within range

of that hut. Once the easy poaching is finished, the

settler will move on, clear enough woodland for a new hut,

and begin poaching the new territory. Although some of this

meat is undoubtedly filling the pot of hungry settlers, much

of this meat has reportedly made it to commercial butcheries

in the large towns. Some recent reports indicate that

poaching is reaching commercial proportions with

international implications. Several rhino poachers arrested

in July are suspected to be Zambians. Also in July, a group

of twelve South African sport hunters was arrested while

trying to export over 400 kg of game meat reportedly taken

on an occupied farm. Despite claims that their permits were

in order, there is no evidence of compliance with any of

Zimbabwe’s strict statutory requirements for international







4. Wildlife in Zimbabwe can be classified by its size, its

protected/non-protected status, and its location, all of

which affect the impact of poaching. First, large animals,

such as elephant and buffalo, are more resistant to random

poaching due to their sheer size and strength. A great deal

of Zimbabwe’s widespread poaching is opportunistic, and what

is killed depends upon which animals stray into the

thousands of wire snares littering the bush. Large animals

which can break out of such snares might still die if snare

wounds become infected, but many survive with few ill

effects. Second, some animals, such as rhinos, cheetahs,

painted hunting dogs, and pangolins, are protected (to some

degree) by the GOZ; other animals, such as antelope,

giraffes, lions, and leopards, are not.   Much of the non-

protected wildlife, particularly “plains animals” such as

impala, eland, kudu, sable, wildebeest, and zebra, are

widely hunted for food, while others are highly valued as

trophies. Some of the protected wildlife is hunted

opportunistically, while others — such as rhinos — offer

poachers commercial benefit, but require deliberate and well-

equipped pursuit. Finally, some wild animals inhabit state-

owned parks or privately-owned conservancies, while many

others previously lived on privately-owned commercial farms.

Even now, some animals in parks and conservancies have

escaped wholesale slaughter, while wildlife which inhabited

regions formerly dominated by commercial farms has been

almost completely hunted out.






5. The size of an animal has a direct impact on its

susceptibility to the opportunistic poaching taking place in

many wildlife areas. Although neither elephant nor buffalo

are specifically protected under Zimbabwean law, both

require deliberate and well-armed pursuit; needless to say,

snaring has a limited effect such animals. (Rhinos are

considered separately, below.) In Save Conservancy, for

instance, while carcasses of 715 poached impala have been

recovered by game scouts, only 6 poached elephant and 3

poached buffalo have been identified. Some large animals

simply are not hindered by snares set low enough for the

small plains game; other large animals become entangled, but

manage to break out of the snare. Sometimes such snare

wounds fester and finally kill the animal; in some

instances, elephants have been found with severed trunks.

In other cases the snares are shaken off and the animals

recover with few side effects. Pursuit with dogs,

similarly, is a tactic suitable for smaller animals, but

dangerous for larger, stronger and more aggressive animals.


6. Elephant is one of the few species which has actually

increased in number, even in the chaotic and lawless

situation prevalent in much of Zimbabwe’s rural lands.

Conservationists estimate that although the Zimbabwe has a

carrying capacity for about 45,000 elephants, the current

population is more than double that number. The most recent

survey, conducted in 2001, indicated herds of around 89,000.

Using a growth rate 3-4%, Dr. Cumming, previously the Chief

Research Officer and Deputy Director of the National Parks,

estimates that the herds now comprise more than 100,000

animals. The largest factor underlying this phenomenal

growth, in addition to the elephant’s relative

imperviousness to casual poaching, is the international

Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species

(CITES) ban on the ivory trade. Under that ban, countries

such as the U.S. prohibit the importation of ivory and other

elephant products. Despite the ban, however, hunters (even

American hunters) are still allowed to kill trophy

elephants, and the current rate for trophy bulls is held at

about .5% of the population — which maintains both the

population as well as the trophy quality.






7. Black rhinos, one of the most endangered species

worldwide and one of the few species to have officially

protected status in Zimbabwe, have also been somewhat spared

from the widespread devastation. Under Zimbabwean law,

wildlife belongs to no individual, but a property owner or

occupier can use whatever wildlife that can be captured or

“possessed” on his property. Rhinos, however, officially

belong to the GOZ. There have been a number of successful

black rhino translocations, but even where the animals have

been placed on private land, the private landowner is merely

a custodian and not an owner. When Zimbabwe achieved

independence in 1980, it was home to approximately 2,000

black rhino, with a concentration of about 1,400 — the

largest population in the world — in the Zambezi valley.

Widespread commercial poaching (defined as poaching in which

the horn is removed for sale) decimated the black rhino

population in the late 1980’s throughout Zimbabwe, and the

number declined to about 370. The GOZ established four

Intensive Protection Zones (IPZs) in state land areas, to

concentrate available government anti-poaching resources on

the few relatively high-density rhino populations that

survived the waves of poaching. These four IPZs are

Sinamatella (in Hwange National Park), Matusadona (on the

southern shore of Lake Kariba), Matobo (near Bulawayo) and

Chipinge (on the eastern side of Zimbabwe).   Due to the

intensive conservation measures undertaken, Zimbabwe’s

population increased to about 520 black rhinos by 2000.


8.   Prior to the land invasions, almost 75% of Zimbabwe’s

black rhinos inhabited commercial farms and conservancies,

with approximately 200 in the Lowveld conservancies of Save

Valley and Bubiana. According to conservation experts with

the World Wide Fund for Nature, “Since early 2000, the rhino

custodianship scheme has been greatly undermined because of

large-scale invasions by subsistence farmers into areas of

commercial ranching land, throughout Zimbabwe. Peasant

subsistence farming and rhino conservation are mutually

exclusive activities. Hence the invasions into at least a

third of the total area of the rhino custodianship areas in

southern Zimbabwe have displaced significant numbers of

rhinos out of their home ranges and thereby stimulated

fighting between the animals, leading to many injuries and

the deaths of at least two black rhinos. Habitats are being

cleared for patchy settlement and extensive bush fires that

have arisen in this process have swept through

conservancies, killing at least one black rhino calf. “


9. Despite the increased pressure on the habitat of rhinos

and the competition between animals and settlers, there have

only been a handful of documented commercial rhino poaching

incidents since 2000. Four incidents were confirmed on the

Bubiana Conservancy, eight incidents were confirmed in

Hwange National Park, and one incident was confirmed in

Matusadona National Park. Several other incidents have been

alleged but not confirmed. Many factors contribute to the

increase in rhino poaching, despite an international

moratorium on the sale of rhino horns. Conservationists

implemented a massive de-horning campaign in the mid-1990s,

but most animals’ horns have since grown back, making them

once again attractive targets. The lack of resources to

support game scouts and anti-poaching units has decreased

their effectiveness; the increasing “war-lord” mentality of

many rural areas, where a powerful local man can take what

he wants, has also been noted. Additionally, heavily armed

“military” personnel were implicated in several of the

poaching incidents around the Sinamatella camp in Hwange.


10. The total black rhino loss due to land invasions and

associated snaring within Save Valley and Bubiana

Conservancies is probably 15-20 animals. Losses in other

areas, such as Gourlays, Hwange and Matusadona, could be as

high. Recent press statements have suggested that some 50

rhinos, black and white, have been poached during the land

invasions. The known losses due to poaching (as of early

April, 2003) are less than this figure and do not include

any white rhinos, but there will definitely be some rhino

snaring cases that have not yet been detected or reported.






11. NATIONAL PARKS. Zimbabwe has approximately 49,000

square kilometers (km2) of state-owned “protected areas.”

Under Zimbabwe’s framework, these protected areas are

delineated as follows: national parks, safari areas (or

parks which allow hunting), recreational parks, sanctuaries,

botanical gardens, botanical reserves, and forestry lands.

Protected areas in Zimbabwe currently break down into

several major clusters, in which a national park is

surrounded by safari areas, recreational parks, and forest

lands. The most significant of these are: the northwestern

Matabeleland cluster (Hwange/Kazuma/Zambezi National Parks,

surrounded by the Matetsi and Deka Safari Areas); the

southeastern Gona-Re-Zhou National Park (now part of the

Transfrontier Park between Zimbabwe, South Africa, and

Mozambique, along with several neighboring private

conservancies); and the northeastern Zambezi Valley cluster

(Matusadona and Mana Pools National Parks, surrounded by

Charara, Sibilobilo, Hurungwe, Sapi, Chewore, Dande, and

Doma Safari Areas).


12. Although parks have traditionally offered some

protection from poaching to resident animals, that

protection has evaporated under the current economic and

political crisis.   Dr. David Cumming notes that the

international standard for effective park management runs at

about US $200-250 per km2. The extreme range is represented

by white rhino conservancies in the KwaZuluNatal province of

South Africa, some of which reportedly spend about US $6,000

per km2. By comparison, he reports, the current Zimbabwe

budget allocates about US $10 per km2. Combined with the

current political and economic meltdown, this lack of funds

translates directly into less protection for animals: fewer

game scouts, fewer anti-poaching units, fewer vehicles, less

fuel, minimal interest in pursuing poachers, and minimal

sentences for those actually convicted.


13. Dr. Cumming cites, for example, the situation at the

Sengwa research center, located in the Charisa Safari Area.

Dr. Cumming lived at this location for almost twelve years,

and has taken groups of graduate students to the research

center for fieldwork for many years. The research center is

surrounded by Chizarira National Park, Chete Safari Area,

and communal farmlands. While the area has for many years

enjoyed an abundance of wildlife, Dr. Cumming reports that

it is almost completely decimated as of 2003. When asked

whether wildlife could have moved elsewhere, he states that

the lack of animals is certainly due to poaching. He notes

that most Zimbabwean animals are prevented from large-scale

migratory movements, such as those observed in Tanzania and

parts of Kenya, by the geographical differences between the

two regions. He also notes that Zimbabwean wildlife

movement is limited by animals’ territorial attachments to

home ranges, dependence upon limited water sources, and

circumscription by surrounding hunting and farming areas.

Given that there is no place for the animals to have gone,

coupled with the hundreds of snares recovered in the area,

he concludes that they have been hunted to annihilation.



commencement of the Land Resettlement Program, there were at

least five officially-recognized, privately-owned

conservancies (the multiple-property developments at Save

Valley Conservancy, Bubiana Conservancy, Chiredzi River

Conservancy, and the Bubi River Conservancy, and the single-

property resort of Malilangwe Conservancy). The GOZ has

sometimes refused to recognize the legitimacy of other

conservancies, claiming that singly-owned conservancies such

as Gourlays Ranch or Amcit-owned Twin Springs Wildlife

conservancy did not meet the “official” definition of a

conservancy. In reality, both Gourlays Ranch and Twin

Springs occupy coveted property, while many of the

“recognized” conservancies occupy marginal land in the

drought-prone lowveld. (Note: In fact, when questioned

about the status of single-property conservancies, GOZ

officials usually launch into a history lesson and defense

of the entire land resettlement program, claiming that the

tendency of private landowners to go into wildlife

operations in the 1990s actually threatened Zimbabwe’s food

security, necessitating the land-grab and redistribution

exercise. The fact that food security was not at risk until

after the land resettlement program devastated agricultural

production is apparently moot. End note.)


15. Information provided by conservationists indicates that

several of the privately-owned conservancies have been

poached almost to extinction, while several others seem to

be maintaining some of their wildlife. Gourlays Ranch and

Twin Springs Conservancy have been heavily poached, while

Gourlays has been occupied and both have been targeted for

acquisition under the Land Resettlement Program. Chiredzi

River Conservancy and the Bubi River conservancy, although

not formally designated for acquisition, have been partially

settled and almost completely poached of plains animals.

Bubiana Conservancy reports that it has also been partially

settled and heavily poached in the northern section,

although conservation groups state that most of the rhino

population has been pushed into the southern section. The

pressure of this displacement on Bubiana’s male rhinos —

which are territorial and solitary — has led to fighting,

injury, and several documented deaths, while there are

several reports of commercial rhino poaching on the



16. Both Malilangwe and the Save Conservancy have been

accorded different treatment, and incurred different

damages. Malilangwe, a 480-km2 conservancy which is singly-

owned by a trust (in which an Amcit is heavily involved), is

a very high-profile retreat which previously boasted an

international jet-set clientele, and that factor may account

for the difference in treatment from that accorded Gourlays

Ranch and Twin Springs Conservancy. The manager of

Malilangwe reports that while poaching has been an issue in

outlying border areas, there have been no egregious

incidents recently and there is currently no occupation or

settlement. However, in a widely-publicized incident in

January 2003, provincial governor Josiah Hungwe sent a

letter to Malilangwe’s Board of Directors demanding that two

Zanu-PF connected Zimbabwean businessmen be co-opted into

its Board of Directors. The management at Malilangwe

reportedly forwarded this demand to the Board of Trustees

who have not taken any further action, although they

perceive this as an attempt to strong-arm money and gain

influence within the not-for-profit organization.


17. Save Conservancy is a 321,355 hectare project which is

jointly owned by twenty-three landowners (including an

Amcit) who have dedicated their properties to wildlife

production and management. Each property owner retains

separate ownership, and each is allocated separate hunting

quotas, although all internal fences have been removed in

order to facilitate the free movement of animals between the

properties. Several of the constituent farms have been

heavily invaded by settlers, and several have received

either preliminary or final notices of GOZ acquisition under

the Land Resettlement Program. War veterans and other

occupiers have declared at least five of the occupied

properties along the outside borders “no-go” areas, and

conservancy managers and game scouts cannot even estimate

the losses on those properties. The entire western game

fence — in excess of 80 km of fence, comprising 1280 km of

wire — has been cut down and transformed into wire snares,

which now permeate parts of the conservancy. Conservancy

managers have documented the impact of occupation through

overflight game counts and settler/hut/domestic animal

counts, and have confirmed the inverse relationship between

settler presence and wildlife presence, with almost no

wildlife visible on the “no-go” farms. Since August 2001,

Save monitors have documented several thousand animals

poached, over twenty thousand snares recovered, hundreds of

poachers’ dogs shot, and over a thousand poachers arrested –

– without even taking into account the most heavily

“settled” farms. Characteristically, the largest animals —

elephant, buffalo, and rhino — have been the least

affected, while the “meat” animals — impala, kudu, eland,

warthog, wildebeest, zebra, and other small animals — have

been the most heavily poached.


18. It is interesting to note that the GOZ has consistently

promised the publication of a “Wildlife-Based Plan for Land

Resettlement,” supposedly addressing the claims and needs of

private conservancies, since the land invasions were first

initiated by the government in 2000. To date, no formal

statement has been forthcoming, and private conservancies

continue to struggle against the tide of occupation, extra-

legal land grabs, and continued poaching.






19. Conservationists note that natural resources are a

safety net in hard times; it seems that the current hard

times may have destroyed the resiliency of that net, at

least from the wildlife perspective. The bitter struggle

between new land claimants and title-deed holders has left

many animal populations completely unprotected and subject

to random depredation. While some specific segments of

Zimbabwe’s wildlife environment have been spared

devastation, the environment as a whole has suffered damage

which could take generations to repair. It will be little

consolation to a future GOZ to possess 500 black rhino, or

100,000 elephants, if the ecology is so damaged that the

land cannot sustain them. Tourism is one of the engines

which could pull Zimbabwe out of an economic morass — but

only if Zimbabwe retains attractions and infrastructure

sufficient to catch the attention of tourists. Continued

destruction of wildlife resources could cause severe delays

in the eventual recovery of the tourism sector.





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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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