Elephant Management - A Catalyst for Conservation and Rural Development
A Zimbabwe Example

David Peddie
December 2014
(Although this essay is three years old, not much has changed to alter its basic premise and suggestions)

The results of the recent elephant census in Zimbabwe, conducted under the “Great Elephant Census”, were presented by Dr Kevin Dunham at a meeting in Hwange National Park in December 2014. Although the countrywide population is down by some 6% (Total = 82 - 83000) from 2001, the figures seem to reinforce the dual issues of high levels of poaching in some localities and high densities of elephant in others.

The Middle Zambezi Valley area, including Chizarira and Matusadona National Parks; Chirisa, Chete and Charara Safari Areas, and the Kavira and Sijarira Forests, shows a marked decline in numbers from about 14000 in 2001 to 3500 in 2014. Although growing human populations in the communal areas surrounding the Parks and Safari Areas have resulted in more animals shot as crop raiders and in a substantial loss of habitat to subsistence agriculture, poaching is deemed to be the primary explanation for such a marked decline.

Similarly for the Lower Zambezi Valley, including the hunting-based Safari Areas and Mana Pools National Park, where the numbers are down by some 40%, from about 20000 to 14000. Although only the southern and eastern boundaries of these areas are bordered by communal land, much of the area is under commercial trophy hunting.

In fact, most of the middle and lower Zambezi regions, including the Safari Areas, State Forests and communal lands, are used for trophy hunting. The Zimbabwe trophy hunting industry claims to invest heavily in wildlife conservation through anti-poaching support and by providing economic benefits to the rural communities living in and around the hunting concessions - and there are examples of some who do. However, in this case, there are questions to be raised with the Zimbabwe hunting industry about the apparent lack of success of their efforts in these areas.

Safari hunting (Trophy Hunting : A Wildlife Conservation Tool?) still has a role to play, but the corruption, the greed and the lack of ethics in the hunt need to be addressed if it is to, once again, fully fulfil that role. The capacity and commitment of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to provide scientific management of the wildlife resource; to cooperate with, and provide support for, rural communities living with wildlife, and to ensure rigorous oversight of the industry also needs to be urgently addressed. 

The population of elephant in Hwange National Park and the Matetsi Complex has increased by about 10% to possibly 50-55000. Even considering the open border with Botswana, this is in excess of the proposed optimum, given the Park objective of biodiversity conservation. This should be of particular concern as the current water management plan is not specifically designed to influence the distribution patterns and, possibly, the growth rate of the elephant population.

However, while both the localised “over-population”of elephant and the “population declines”of some other species, may be construed as problems, they are, potentially, an opportunity. An opportunity not only for the future of the elephant, but for the whole range of wild species indigenous to northwest Matabeleland. It is also an opportunity for the establishment of a sustainable socio-economic development programme for all of the communal areas surrounding the protected areas from Hwange to Charara. 

The results of this census strongly back the case for a concerted effort to bring wildlife - elephant - back into the depleted areas of the Parks and Wildlife Estate (Chizarira and Chirisa) and the Forestry areas, and back into the mainstream of Zimbabwe rural socio-economic development. Wildlife management and the harvesting of renewable natural resources from “ wild” areas need to be central to the strategic rural development objectives under a revitalised Campfire programme. It is also necessary that these objectives recognise that the ecosystem services provided by those wild areas inhabited by rural communities are a “globally essential commodity”, vital to protect and worth paying for. Only then will there be a chance of turning around the wildlife loss and ecological degradation, so dramatically identified by the elephant census results and by the expansion of human subsistence agriculture into ecologically unsuitable areas. The implementation of concurrent and effective education, vocational training, administrative systems and security (anti-poaching) notwithstanding.

One option, one tactic within this strategy, would be to use the elephant of Hwange National Park as a source population to “restock” those areas south and northeast of the Park, including the communal lands, as a catalyst to a comprehensive programme of rural development based on wildlife. The elephant is one of Africa’s most charismatic species, and given the flood of international reaction to practices like elephant calf export; to the incidents of poaching by cyanide poisoning and to the trophy hunting of an exceptionally heavily-tusked bull elephant, such a large scale and imaginative conservation and socio-economic upliftment project could well generate the substantial funding that would be necessary to reverse the ecological degradation and socio-economic decline so evident throughout the area.

Now is an opportune time to re-engage the communities and re-look at the whole area on both a landscape scale and at a community (ward) level. Concepts such as :

*  communal conservancies;
*  nodal development of infrastructure and agriculture / aquaculture - protected around sites with the most suitable soils and water availability;
*  the utilisation of wildlife as an integral element of livestock management; and
*  the expansion of both non-consumptive and consumptive tourism,

are all possible and offer a realistic option to turn around the poaching assault on elephant and other wildlife. There is nothing new in the concept of community ownership of their natural resources as a conservation principle, its how we apply it and how vigorously we pursue its implementation, that is now the critical factor.

To tackle this issue requires political will, which, in Zimbabwe, is the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Given the corruption and self-interest prevalent in the government, getting support for ecologically sustainable development programmes will depend on some innovative skills of persuasion! The advent of the China Factor into coal mining, coal-fired power generation and coal bed methane extraction on the border of Hwange National Park and in the Lupane - Binga area is an exacerbating factor.

(3 December 2015  :  The China Factor just got considerably more disturbing. Over the last few days agreements have been signed in Harare for huge coal, power and gas developments in Northwest Matabeleland.)

Nevertheless, there is nothing to stop the “stakeholders” - conservationists; conservation groups; the tourism industry; international conservation and development NGOs; the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the leadership of the relevant communities - from establishing a planning forum to initiate the process and to begin a search for funds to finance both the planning and the implementation.

To that end, the recent Sebungwe Elephant Management Plan Workshop brought a diverse group of stakeholders together and produced an “Elephant Management Action Plan” that has many of the elements required to achieve conservation and development goals.
In August 2017, nothing of significance has materialised.

It probably needs the tourism industry, which depends to a large extent on the wildlife resource, and the NGO community to take the lead and to assist the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The Authority, which lacks capacity and experience and which has been influenced into pursuing policies that are politically motivated and are as ineffective as they are controversial, needs help to find the resolve to pursue its conservation and rural development mandate, and to accept its responsibility to the people of Zimbabwe and Africa.

A programme of this nature and scale could also reestablish the Authority as an organisation of vision and integrity and a leader in Africa.

Simply put, move elephants out of Hwange National Park - by translocation and by habitat / water management in and around the Park - and into the depleted communal areas and Parks and Wildlife Estate, and follow them with a range of other wildlife species. By doing so, the rural communities will be given a realistic chance to become the conservationists, and the opportunity to alleviate their poverty by using or leasing that wildlife - legally.

Use the existing resource to catalyse wildlife land use and, thus, wildlife range expansion. Let elephant lead the charge.


If not, the poaching is likely to continue and the elephant population in Hwange is likely to further alter the biodiversity of the Park. Both will probably lead to a decline in elephant and many other wildlife species.

In the southeast of the country, the same issue exists. The survey results for the Gonarezhou National Park reveal a population of some 11000, while conventional wisdom suggests that a permanent population of around 4000 within the Park would be optimal. The same principles of land management and rural development are applicable with a real opportunity to expand elephant range into the communal lands around the Park and into Mozambique.

With the world focus on the negative aspects of Zimbabwe conservation as a result of an international perception of a discredited trophy hunting industry; the inappropriate elephant management policy of calf capture and the cyanide issue, this is an opportunity to turn it all around.

In some ways, this is a coincidental juxtaposition of circumstances, much like as was taken advantage of in 1993/94 when some 700 elephant were translocated, thanks to the innovative expertise of Clem Coetzee, from Gonarezhou National Park to the Save Valley Conservancy. Today, as then, Zimbabwe wildlife conservation is under pressure and there is heightened international awareness and concern for the plight of elephant and rhino and for curbing illegal wildlife trafficking. At the same time, because of these universal concerns, there are large scale, international conservation and rural development funds available for the right project. The reasons; the means and the passion, to do something significant in Zimbabwe are all there, waiting to be brought together.

The COP21 Agreement on Climate Change also, now, provides impetus to use climate change resilience and mitigation measure funding to support the socio-economic development of rural communities in a way that sequestrates carbon and protects ecosystem function. An “elephant and rural community project” should meet all those objectives and criteria.

It is possible. Use the circumstances. Seize the moment.

Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017