Edward Ngwenya lives in a small village bordering Zimbabwe’s Hwange Game Reserve. He owns three goats and lives on the meagre crops he is able to grow. Brent Stapelkamp of the Oxford University-sponsored Lion Guardians project works with his community, educating them in conservation and encouraging them not to kill the lions that often prey on their livestock.
“These are the rural [Zimbab-weans] … the poorest of the poor,” says Ngwenya. “In our area, if you have a goat, it translates into a term at school for your child. So if that goat gets killed, you literally have to tell your child he’s not going to school.”
Stapelkamp’s job is tough. “People are really at their wits’ end,” he pauses, shakes his head, “and the poorest they have ever been. We’re looking like we’re going into a drought now. So to talk about conservation when people don’t have any food in their granaries is a very difficult subject.”
It is even more difficult when these desperately poor villagers see rich foreigners pay massive fees of between $55 000 and $90 000 for trophy hunts. That, Stapelkamp says, “is enough for one of these whole communities to survive for a year. So it’s very difficult for rural Zimbabweans to understand why that lion is so valuable to a foreigner, and yet they get nothing for it.”
And there you have the crux of Zimbabwe’s conservation problem: eye-watering prices paid to shoot big game are accompanied by bold promises that the community will benefit – but in reality these communities are only getting poorer.
At sunset, on a dusk game drive through Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, at least a dozen elephants including their babies can be seen drinking at a nearby water hole. An idyllic setting – but one that is in desperate decline.
Zimbabwe’s national parks are under-resourced and rangers outmanned and outgunned by poachers. During just one week earlier this month, 26 elephants were poisoned with cyanide for their tusks.
Hwange National Park was the former home of its star attraction, the rare black-maned Cecil the Lion. The park rose to prominence following the discovery that an American dentist from Minnesota, Walter Palmer, had shot Cecil with a bow and arrow and later killed him off with a single shot on July 1.
The parks authorities say this was an illegal hunt and promptly arrested and slapped charges on local operator Theo Bronkhorst.
Initially the Zimbabwean authorities also made dramatic threats to extradite and charge Palmer alongside Bronkhorst. It was all big talk – there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Zimbabwe and Palmer clearly had no intention of returning. But the global outrage boiled over, TV host Jimmy Kimmel broke down sobbing on American television and the donations to the Oxford Research project multiplied.
There was also a huge backlash against hunting in general – even legal hunts. Zimbabwe has endured 35 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule, and its economy is in tatters. The country’s national parks rely solely on hunting for income.
Emmanuel Fundira, who runs the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, is blunt when asked how much the government provides for conservation: “Not one cent, not one cent. So that in itself shows you that the parks are very constrained in terms of the resources they can supply in protecting some animals.”
Thirty percent of all private trophy-hunting fees are paid over to the National Parks coffers. And 100% of money from hunts conducted on land owned by local communities is supposed to go back to them.
Hunter Theo Bronkhorst and his lawyer Givemore Muvhiringi during the Cecil the Lion case. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP)
Hunters like to say that they are uplifting local communities and that they are conservation’s best ally. Former professional hunter Hannes Wessels, who is fed up with the outrage over Cecil the Lion, says: “Well, I’d say to them [anyone who opposes hunting], you know, when you’re finished being disgusted, come and do something about saving what’s left, because it’s disappearing very quickly.”
Hunters even receive support from conservationists. Guy Balme works for the conservation group Panthera and is passionate about big cats. “I am appalled by trophy hunting. I can’t stand it, it nauseates me … but at the moment it’s a necessary evil.”
It’s necessary because of the money derived for conservation. “It’s by no means a silver bullet,” he stresses, “but at the moment it’s the best that we have. I don’t think trophy hunting is a sustainable solution for conservation in Africa. But I do think it probably slows the demise of our wild habitats.”
This is fine in theory; the practice is the problem. Fundira explains: “There’s a difference; it’s intended to help conservation but … do those resources then get into those communities? I think that’s where the question mark is.”
Mary-Jane Ncube runs Transparency in Zimbabwe – a non-governmental group that monitors corruption. “In the area of conservation,” she says, “I think it [the government] has behaved like a predatory state, going after big investments, giving them to cronies, family, and really not having any concern for communities that are dependent on that land …”
The ruling elite benefits from hunting: “National Parks was the authority in charge of concessions and licensing,” Ncube explains, “but because of the corruption … concessions and licences are now given according to who you are and who you can pay the highest dollar to.”
The community that owns the land around Hwange and other reserves is supposed to receive the funds from trophy hunting through an organisation known as Campfire.
Stapelkamp says the project was ground-breaking at first: “It’s a beautiful model. That wildlife should benefit the people who live with it, and suffer from it. You know, lions eat cattle, and people should benefit from having a lion around and not necessarily pay all the costs. But we just don’t see it working any more.”
A local chief from the area, Victor Nekatambe, remembers his father disbursing the money received from hunting to the families living there. Often an ox would be slaughtered, and his father would hand each family a sum of money.
That was nearly three decades ago. Now the local rural district councils have taken over the management of Campfire. And how much do the communities get? “They are getting nothing, absolutely nothing,” Nekatambe tells me with an air of resignation. “I would describe it as corruption. I mean, you can’t use public funds for your own benefit.”
“It is a problem, it’s a real menace,” Fundira says. “So, given that the environment and economy are not doing well and people are in dire straits, they will almost do anything in terms of selling their souls for a bit of silver.”
I meet the chief executive of the Hwange Rural District Council, Phindile Ncube, near his thriving sunflower crop. When I comment on how well they are doing compared with the crops people like Ngwenya are trying to grow, he nods sagely and puffs up his chest proudly. “You have to water them a lot,” he says.
“Well, rural communities don’t have water,” I offer. “Unfortunately,” he says, laughing.
Ncube’s district council made over US$600 000 from trophy hunting for Campfire over the past five years. He claims it is used for building schools and clinics. In the areas I visited there was no evidence of such development, but even if it’s true for other places, the overwhelming feeling is that Campfire is useless.
“If you talk to communities today and say ‘Campfire’ they don’t want to hear,” Fundira says. “They say Campfire is not benefiting them at all and that in itself is a disaster.”
Ncube also claims money goes to restocking livestock eaten by lions and feeding schemes for the poor. I tell him of Edward Ngwenya’s plight: that he has almost no food and has never received a replacement for any goats stolen by lions. Ncube dismisses this with scorn.
“Why does everybody say they don’t have food then?”
I challenge: “Are you saying they are lying to us?”
“Of course they are,” Ncube says. “No one goes hungry in this country.”
But that night Edward Ngwenya will go to sleep having eaten nothing more than a small bowl of porridge.