As anyone involved in the ecotourism industry can tell you, there are conservation and environmental challenges in every tourist destination. The problems may arise from human population pressures, natural geographic factors or climatic changes. Consider Bermuda’s crumbling coral reef, or the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Volcanic Range under constant threat from hunting and habitat destruction along the northern border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
In Zimbabwe, troubles have surfaced in the area surrounding the majestic Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The enveloping Victoria Falls National Park and its neighbouring Zambezi National Park both boast incredible biodiversity. Within the dense rainforests and riverine jungles are rare plants and animals like mahogany trees, elephants, kudu, hippos, herons, crocodiles, cormorants and kingfishers. In recent years, however, many native species have suffered from an increase in poaching.
Fortunately, one group has worked tirelessly to confront the growing crisis.
A Need for Action
In January 1999, having observed the increased threat to the parks surrounding Victoria Falls, a local safari operator named Charles Brightman joined forces with the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge to establish the non-profit Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit (VFAPU). Working in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, local police and the Forestry Commission, the VFAPU combats the destruction caused by environmental, subsistence and commercial poaching.
Environmental poaching is the removal of plants, trees, soil and other local species and habitat. Examples include the pilfering of sand for use in making bricks, quarry stone for construction or plants for food. The biggest threat of all, however, is the unsustainable removal of indigenous hardwoods for firewood (for cooking and warmth), carvings and structural supports. Over the last decade, due to the deteriorating economic situation, local residents have devastated Zimbabwe’s forestry zones. There are an estimated 5,000 curio vendors in Victoria Falls alone and the indigenous hardwoods harvested as raw materials are African ebony, pod mahogany and the mukwa. Research conducted by the Forestry Commission indicates that in certain areas, 80% of the mukwa trees have already been destroyed.
To counter this, VFAPU spends time in local communities reinforcing the importance of preserving the environment, while also identifying sustainable alternatives for, for example, cooking and heating. The VFAPU delivers its conservation message through song and dance with the aid of drama groups, and gives demonstrations on the use of stoves that use alternative fuels like sawdust (available free from local mills). Working with the Forestry Commission, commercial carvers are provided free transport to and from the forestry headquarters, where they can purchase wood.
Scourge of the Snares
Subsistence poaching poses a deadly threat to wildlife in the national park areas surrounding Victoria Falls. Gangs of poachers set traps along animal migration trails used to reach food and water sources. Trapped in wire snares, animals can suffer for several days before they die. The poachers then butcher the animal on site, hang the meat up to dry for several days and then send it to local communities to sell. As ‘bushmeat’ is sold at a cheaper rate than meat available at the butcher, there is a huge demand for the poached produce.
Mammals regularly targeted for their meat include buffalo, kudu, eland and impala. The snares, however, do not discriminate and larger, stronger animals are sometimes caught. Their attempts to pull free often result in the broken snares embedded in their limbs, snouts, trunks and tails resulting in mutilations and serious or life-threatening infections. To date this year (2010), 99 snares have been removed from the area and 18 mammals have been removed from snares: one eland, four impalas, three warthogs, six buffaloes, one sable, one spotted hyena, one elephant and one kudu.
In conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority – together with local veterinarians and wildlife experts who volunteer their time – VFAPU has been successful at darting and treating animals found alive in snares, removing the snares and treating the infection. Unfortunately, many animals are discovered dead, do not survive their injuries or, due to the severity of their wounds, must be put down.
Conservation in Crisis
Commercial poaching – the sale of plant and animal products such as ivory, horns, feet and skins – is also prevalent in Zambezi National Park. The most common victims of commercial poachers are rhinos and elephants, the coveted ivory tusks of the latter the most frequently poached product, sold to traders in the Middle East and Far East and carved into artefacts. Elephant feet are also used as footstools and umbrella stands, while their hair is used for bangles and their skin cured for leather.
Driven by a consumer appetite for their distinctive horns – prized for their translucency when carved and their supposed health properties – all five of the world’s rhinoceros species have been brought to the edge of extinction. While we can report on a successful breeding program for black rhino in Zambezi National Park, the survival of the species is still in doubt due to an increase in poaching of both white and black rhino in Zimbabwe.
Sustainability through Education
As with all conservation and environmental recovery efforts, educating the local communities is one key to success. When subsistence communities have been pressed by financial crisis and are fighting for their survival, finding reasonable alternative practices and resources is the biggest challenge. To help with this process and provide new sources of income, training programs now teach skills such as weaving and embroidery. Wood is also made available through the forestry commissions.
Educating travellers is also vital to the success of conservation efforts in Zimbabwe. Through his travel company, Discover Safaris, Charles Brightman has launched a new activity: the Wildlife Conservation and Awareness Safari. Participants learn about VFAPU’s operations and the challenges it faces before being taken into Zambezi National Park to record game sightings, identify spoor, patrol and sweep for wire snares and investigate for signs of poaching. An anti-poaching horseback patrol has also been introduced; experienced riders are invited to search for snares as a step in learning about conservation efforts in the park.
Volunteers and local companies continue to give time and money in support of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit’s proven success in protecting Victoria Falls National Park and Zambezi National Park. From a starting full-time staff of only three people, VFAPU has grown to include 12 active scouts charged with patrolling the 50-square-kilometre area surrounding Victoria Falls. Committed to the recovery of snares, authorised to capture and arrest hardened poachers and armed with a determination to educate the local communities on the importance of sustaining the local environment, the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit presses on, playing its part in protecting the parks and resources of Zimbabwe for generations to come.