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The nuisances that communities do to escalate human-wildlife conflict in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe

12 July 2021

Compiled by Byron Zamasiya, Natural Resources Economist (Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association)

Human-wildlife conflict remains a significant problem in Zimbabwe among wildlife reliant communities and those that are adjacent to protected areas. Smallholder farmers are losing crops, lives are being lost while some have suffered injuries due to this hazard. Some smallholder farmers are using mitigation strategies that include chilli bricks, cattle bomas, lion tracking, vuvuzelas, torches, community wildlife conservancies, bee-hive boundaries, buffer crops, among others with varying successes. In this blog, l focus on the nuisances that smallholder farmers do and their impact on incidences of human wildlife conflict in the Zambezi Valley. If these little things are addressed, it is most likely that incidences of human-wildlife conflict will significantly fall not only in the Zambezi Valley but across the country.

The nuisances that communities do

Poorly built kraals for cattle and goats

Livestock, especially goats and cattle, are a significant safety net for smallholder farmers in wildlife reliant areas. When the crops fail, the smallholder farmers augment their food supplies by selling livestock to raise much needed financial resources. Despite the importance of livestock to household food security, most smallholders particularly in the Mbire District have poorly built kraals. Most of them use tree branches with thorns to make what they call a kraal. Others have kraals made from poles, but the distance between the poles is too large, making it easy for predators like lions, hyenas and leopards to fish out their prey easily. The last group of farmers uses poles that are less than 1.5 metres. These short poles make it easy for the predators to jump and feast on the livestock. Smallholder farmers lack the understanding that when predators such as lions and hyenas hunt, they rely a lot on the “safety first principle”. This principle implies that the predator considers its safety before attacking the prey. Lions and hyenas would not attack livestock when their safety is very compromised. This means that a poorly built kraal would easily enable a predator to attack the livestock.  Likewise, a well-built kraal will deter an attack by predators.

Trusting the “gods” to take care of livestock during the night

Those who have been to Mbire district know very well that if you go there after 7 pm, your biggest challenge is livestock sleeping on the roads. The presence of goats on the roads at night clearly suggests that most smallholder farmers do not care where their livestock would be especially during the night. It may also mean that those particular farmers do no treat either cattle or goats farming as business. If they, who would risk letting their huge investments roam on the roads where there is a high risk of attack by predators? When livestock roams on the roads at night, it is highly likely that predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas will attack the livestock. Under such circumstances, even the Mbire “gods” are unable to protect the livestock. The practice also exposes the livestock to the risk of being stolen by itinerant livestock buyers.                          

Poor siting of chilli buffer strings

Smallholder farmers are reporting that chilli buffer strings have a very positive effect on reducing incidences of HWC in the Zambezi Valley. The chilli buffer strings are made from tobacco twine dipped in a mixture of grounded bird’s eye chillies and used oil. The string is usually tied to two or more trees across a wildlife trek at least 200m-1000m away from the farmer’s fields. The string is usually dipped again in the chilli and used oil mixture every two weeks if it’s not raining and weekly if it’s raining. The idea behind the chilli strings is that elephants in particular observe boundaries. Once they smell the chilli and oil on the string, they will reroute. Elephants are also known to respect boundaries. Wildlife such as warthogs and elands are also chased away by the smell of ground chillies and used oil. As such, tying chilli strings across wildlife treks has the effect of diverting their routes thus sparing the smallholder farmers’ fields. Since the chilli string is tied at least 200m-1000m away from the crop field, the elephants would not be violent since they would not have seen any crops. The strings are usually used during the crop growing season until the farmer harvests their crops. However, most smallholder farmers who use chilli buffer strings continue to use the strings even after harvesting their crops. While the smallholder farmers may enjoy some success as the elephants and other wildlife divert their treks, they will eventually get used to the technology rendering it ineffective. Once that happens, the cases of HWC will escalate. Other farmers put the string right at the boundary of the crop field. This practice is ineffective as the elephants become violent once they see the crops. They will not reroute their treks resulting in the destruction of the crops. If the farmer is lucky to deter the wildlife with the string that is right close to the field, the wildlife will vent their frustration in the neighbouring farmer’s fields where there are no chilli strings. So, if wrongly used, chilli buffer strings will escalate incidences of HWC.

Grazing cattle in Community Wildlife Conservancies

Water for livestock drinking is usually the main problem during the dry seasons for communities residing next to conservancies or those cohabiting with wildlife. Although some operators may sink boreholes for communities in the buffer zone, in most cases, water is scarce for livestock drinking. The absence of water for livestock drinking results in some communities illegally grazing their livestock in the conservancy close to water troughs for wildlife. When this happens, the smallholder farmers expose their livestock to attacks by predators such as lions, hyenas, painted dogs and leopards. While the cases of HWC may be low during the controlled grazing period, the livestock may trek to the conservancies on their own during the dry season. It is during that time that the livestock will expose itself to attacks by predators.  This behaviour of grazing cattle in conservancies increases the chances of livestock picking zoonotic diseases and escalates incidences of HWC.

Selling cattle to safari operators for use as baits

In some cases, smallholder farmers in wildlife reliant areas sell their cattle to safari operators for use as baits during the trophy hunting season. Smallholder farmers find the operators to be a good market for cattle as they do not have to travel to business centres to complete the transaction. Some say there are no transaction costs in selling to safari operators.  The safari operators will slaughter the cattle and use them as baits. When this happens, predators may get used to the taste of cattle or goats. As such, they may forget about the wildlife prey, which is difficult to catch and start preying on domesticated livestock. When this happens, the cases of HWC will start to increase.

Lack of buffer zones between communities and conservancies

Buffer zones are a critical part of the communities that are reliant on wildlife resources. A buffer zone can be as wide as 1km or more. In most cases, the demarcation of a buffer zone is done in a participatory manner with the involvement of communities, council and safari operators. Buffer zones provide communities with a source of non-timber forest products, grazing land, thatch grass, firewood and poles for other household construction purposes. However, in some settlements, there are no buffer zones between communities and conservancies. There are reports in some areas that communities refused the demarcation of buffer zones as they felt that this would decimate their fields for crop production. The lack of a buffer zone means that communities and wildlife compete for resources within the conservancy. Such communities are at high risk of wildlife encroachment which escalates incidences of HWC.

False problem animal control reports

When communities get sight of wildlife such as elephants, lions, etc., close to their homes or fields during the crop growing season, they usually report these to the councillor and the Rural District Council and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authorities Rangers. However, the reality on the ground is that some communities have now developed a bad tendency of reporting problem animals when there are none. Some report that their fields have been badly destroyed when in fact, such damage does not exist. Unfortunately, the reports are usually sent straight to the Parks Head Office or other high-level officials circumventing the local authority and the ZimParks Office. Several cases that l have heard in Mbire district show otherwise. Imagine the resources that would have been spent following up on false reports! As such, the local ZimParks Office and the RDC may end up not responding to reports from such wards. This is because they cannot waste limited resources pursuing such false reports. When the community faces a real problem animal challenge in future, the RDC and ZimParks may not cooperate based on the previous learning. This would lead to an escalation of incidences of HWC in the wards.

Visiting water holes at a similar time

Most community members visit water holes most pools or rivers at almost similar times daily. This behaviour allows crocodiles to study the patterns and plan its attacks. Since crocodiles rarely hunt in winter, they reserve their energy for the summer season when their hunting season opens. Due to low energy levels, they use the “make sure principle”. This means that they only attack the prey when they are very sure that they will succeed otherwise they will die from wasted energy. Under such circumstances, crocodiles master the water hole visiting patterns of community members and time their attacks. Maintaining similar times for visiting watering holes, therefore escalates incidences of HWC.

Given these nuisances, what can communities and stakeholders do to reduce the incidences of HWC in the Zambezi Valley and other areas with similar contexts? In this blog, l recommend the following solutions:

  • Encourage livestock farmers to build strong kraals or adopt bomas

A key strategy to reduce incidences of HWC among wildlife-reliant communities is to encourage livestock farmers to build strong kraals with poles that are at least 1.5 metres tall and close to each other. The poles should not afford the predators a chance to see the livestock. An alternative is to adopt bomas. With bomas, the predators cannot see the livestock. Based on the “safety first principle”, the predators will spare the livestock.

  • Encourage farmers not to sell livestock to safari operators for use as baits

Although the market for cattle brought by safari predators may be lucrative, the selling of cattle for use as baits is not encouraged. This is because once predators are introduced to livestock meat, they may become lazy to hunt and endanger domesticated livestock. This is particularly the case with lions and hyenas.

  • Ensure that buffer zones are marked

Considering the role of buffer zones, communities, the RDC, and the safari operators must demarcate a buffer zone.

  • When reporting problem animals, encourage communities to report the reality on the ground.

Communities need to learn to report truthfully.  Communities should also learn to follow the right reporting channel for problem animals. This channel starts with the village head, councillor and then the RDC. It is the RDC that has to report to ZimParks. Observing this hierarchy and sending factual reports can help communities to save the meagre financial resources.

  • Restrict the use of chilli buffer strings to the growing season

Smallholder farmers need to understand that effective use of chilli buffer strings involves adhering to the rules. During the offseason, the smallholder farmers need to remove all the chilli string buffers and allow the wildlife to move freely. This can help to ensure that when the strings are used, the wildlife will not get used to them.

  • Discourage grazing of cattle in conservancies

Although pastures may be scarce in wildlife reliant communities, the RDC and traditional leadership structures should ensure that the communities do not graze their cattle in conservancies. This helps to maintain the value of the conservancy and reduce incidences of HWC.

  • Break the water hole visiting patterns

Wildlife, such as crocodiles, are very good at studying patterns and timing their attacks. Communities should ensure that they break the water hole visiting patterns. This helps to disrupt the learning for crocodiles and reduce incidences of HWC.

Watch out for my next blog, the conversation continues!

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