By Nokuthaba Dlamini
Bonani Masuku does not remember when his family last enjoyed a peaceful night.
Of late a typical night for Masuku, a subsistence farmer from Chikandakubi village under Chief Shana on the outskirts of the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North involves spending several hours fighting off a pride of lions circling his kraal.
On the other hand, his wife and their five-year-old son spend their nights in the family’s maize plot where they have set up a makeshift tent to guard against elephants that invade fields almost daily.
“The frequent attacks by the wild animals have complicated our lives,” complained Masuku. “My child and son now have to sleep in the fields protecting the watermelons that are favoured by the herds of elephants that roam our area every night.
“On the other hand, I have to protect our livestock from lions that raid our kraal all the time.”
Masuku recounted a recent incident where he was awoken by deafening noise coming from his kraal. On approaching the kraal, he noticed that a lion had one of his prized oxen by the neck and ready for the kill.
“The cattle were trying to jump out of the kraal while the ox was being subdued by the lion,” he recounted. “I could not stab the lion with a spear because I would have been charged at, so I had to beat it with the back of the spear until it let go.”
Masuku’s dangerous intervention was, however, a case of too little too late as the ox succumbed to the injuries inflicted by the lion the following day.
His story resonates with those of hundreds of villagers in Nemanhanga, Kachechete, Monde, Ndlovu, Matesti, Chidobe, and Mabale areas that are close to the Hwange National Park.
The villagers complained that due to successive droughts wild animals were straying from the vast game reserve into the villages in search of food with tragic consequences.
Acting Chief Mvuthu from Hwange West said at least 1 400 herd of cattle and goats belonging to his subjects had been killed by lions and hyenas in the past year alone.
The traditional leader said elephants had also destroyed crops, leaving villagers with little to harvest this season.
Given Moyo, the councillor for Kachechete said women and children in his ward now spent their nights guarding crops while men slept in kraals to fight off marauding lions.
Moyo said the attacks by wild animals had worsened this year due to consecutive droughts.
“The situation is the same in all wards (in Hwange West),” he said.
“People are no pitching tents in their fields so that women and children spend the night wading off elephants while men set up camp in kraals to thwart lions.”
Moyo said he received reports from villagers in his ward about cattle or goats killed by wild animals during the night daily.
He said villagers now felt powerless because of harsh penalties imposed on people that kill wild animals even when they are trying to protect themselves and their livestock.
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) is unable to intervene on time and had no strategy to end the human-wildlife conflict, the villagers complained.
“These animals have studied the human approach to their movements and they have become so daring that they charge at us when we try to scare them away,” Moyo added.
“We want the government to give people the authority to kill these animals when they injure or kill a human being or livestock.
“Whenever Zimparks rangers are called in, they trap that particular lion or elephant and drive them back to the park, but two or so days later, you will find the animals wreaking havoc again.
“Courts must not impose stiff penalties on those that kill wild animals in self-defence as they are also victims that need to be compensated.”
Angelina Ncube from Mabale in Cross Dete on the southern tip of the Hwange National Park said she had lost faith in the government giving her any protection against dangerous animals.
Ncube said since her husband relocated to South Africa she had to spend most of her time in the fields trying to protect her crops against elephants and other wild animals.
“My field is about five kilometres from my homestead and l decided to pitch a tent there so I that could guard my crops against elephants that encroach every day,’” she said.
Ncube keeps the elephants away by making a huge fire and beating drums every hour.
“The tactics have been working for me but the elephants now have a habit of invading our fields even during the day and they charge at us when we try to scare them away,” she said.
“We are not receiving any assistance from the government in terms of food aid and we are going to struggle in the coming months because most of the crops have been destroyed by elephants.”
Tinashe Farawo, the Zimparks spokesperson, blamed the worsening human-wildlife conflict in communities around the Hwange National Park on the increasing elephant population at the game reserve.
Farawo said Zimparks had a limited budget for conservation and in most case, it was not able to rescue the villagers when they were under siege.
“This will sound as if we are not doing anything to the world, but the truth of the matter is that we have tried all we can to protect our people and these animals but the problem we have is that our parks, especially in Hwange, are overpopulated and these animals tend to stray in search of food and water,” he said.
“Many lives have been lost as a result and only last year, 38 people were killed by lions, including one who was attacked while driving his motorbike and was eaten on the spot.
“It is very sad also looking at the drought situation where many have even failed to reap their crops.”
Farawo said Zimparks was doing awareness campaigns in affected communities so that villagers avoid encroaching into the habitat for wild animals.
“We have done awareness campaigns where we encourage villagers to avoid sending their livestock in the bush for grazing, but that has not paid off much as it is reported that they now attack from the kraals,” he added.
“We cannot compensate victims now because there is no law that compels us to do that.
“We are, however, crafting a human-wildlife conflict policy where consultations will be conducted especially with rural villagers and they tell us what they expect out of it.”
So serious is the human and wildlife conflict in the area, legislators from Hwange district have joined hands to push the government to intervene.
Godfrey Dube, the MP for Hwange West, said he recently approached Tourism and Environment minister Mangaliso Ndlovu to alert him about the problems in his constituency.
“I have approached the minister of Tourism and Environment in person to discuss this problem and as usual the excuse that we get is that parks are overpopulated and managing these animals is proving to be difficult,” Dube said.
“People are suffering and dying out of starvation. So, for now, we have compiled a report with Hwange Central and Hwange East parliamentarians to table it before Parliament because this issue is being taken lightly.”
Zimbabwe’s game reserves have 85 000 elephants but the country’s conservation areas can only cope with 55 000.
The country, alongside other southern African countries, has been pushing for the lifting of restrictive measures on the trade of ivory to control its elephant population.