The statistics are endless – the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Living Planet Report 2020 shows a 68% decline in wildlife populations between 1970 and 2016, Sir David Attenborough’s new documentary A Life On Our Planet grieves the loss of biodiversity witnessed in his lifetime and points to solutions.
Populations of iconic African wildlife species have plummeted, with just 4% of elephant left roaming the continent compared to a century ago, 5% of rhinos left and 10% of lions left, according to the WWF.
While there are a variety of human factors behind this rapid decline, much of it is due to poaching, particularly with rhino whose horns are highly sought after for eastern medicines and elephants whose tusks are used for crafting souvenirs and jewellery.
But in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe where eight reserves so far are protected by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) an encouraging picture is emerging.
The all-female Akashinga ranger teams began patrols in 2017, and by the end of 2019 their efforts had helped drive an 80% downturn in elephant poaching in the mid and lower Zambezi Valley.
This area, which is home to one of the largest remaining elephant populations left on earth, had lost 8,000 to poaching in the 16 years prior to the program commencing.
In addition, a 399% increase in wildlife sightings has been recorded, and this impact is expected to be repeated as the IAPF expands its footprint across the region.
IAPF operations manager in Hurungwe Simba Sandram says when the organisation took over Phundundu wildlife area, a former hunting reserve, in 2017, the wildlife was depleted, but since then it has been steadily returning.
“The rangers’ sightings are improving and we are seeing a lot of animal activity in the area, for example, species like elephants, lions and leopards have been sighted more in the past few months,” Simba says.
“Since the rains started we’ve had a limited number of sightings, but before the rains we were sighting a large number of elephants, a large number of buffaloes, and lions and leopards here and there,” he says.
In terms of smaller animals, a lot of duiker are being sighted, a species that is often the first to return to an area depleted of game, he says.
By contrast, a nearby wildlife area called Nyaodza, which only came under IAPF protection last year, still has very little wildlife.
“We are keeping records of the sightings at Nyaodza and hopefully by as early as the end of this year there should be a huge improvement in the number of species that are being sighted by the rangers,” he says.
Another sure sign the animal numbers are increasing is a rise in reports of human wildlife conflict in the communities bordering Phundundu wildlife area with animals destroying crops and killing livestock, Simba says.
Previously, these communities were used to what is termed “problem” animals being shot, but the IAPF is dealing with the conflict in a different way, and slowly inroads are being made.
One tactic the rangers use is scaring the animals away from the field by shooting in the air, using firecrackers and recently they’ve started using vuvuzelas, which have been effective, Simba says.
“Ever since we started to use the vuvuzelas in some of the hotspot villages which are having problems the predators kept away. We stopped having reports of lions killing livestock where we have used the vuvuzelas.”
Other tactics include relocating the “problem” wildlife, with a lion and leopard being captured and moved elsewhere last year.
This year the IAPF is going to construct predator-proof kraals to house the villagers’ livestock, with the materials already bought and a community liaison leader work with the villagers employed, Simba says.
“We are going to put a model up to convince them this really works, we’ve bought enough materials to build at least seven or eight kraals in different sections of the communities that lie close to our boundary,” he says.
“It will protect against the lion and the leopard, and for the elephants we are taking it a step at a time, we will continue to use these methods to scare them away.
“It can be easy to forget that this entire area that has villages along the boundary used to be wild. We have to convince them our model is working well – we are employing them, we are giving employment to their children and they are seeing the benefits of that.”
Another idea being mulled is the construction of an electric fence to separate the wildlife areas from the villages, which was successfully done in Gonarezhou National Park, in south eastern Zimbabwe, Simba says.
In a surprising twist, since the onset of the Covid pandemic there has been a dramatic fall in poaching not only in Phundundu, but across the lower Zambezi Valley, with reports out of Mana Pools National Park indicating no elephant were lost to poaching in 2020.
A spike in poaching had been anticipated due to the increased economic hardships brought on by the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, but this hasn’t happened.
Simba believes the police road blocks, and the limited movement of people during Zimbabwe’s national lockdown may be behind this, but others suggest many poachers have been arrested in the past year or two and are now behind bars, leaving fewer out there.
Please help us to continue to turn the tide on poaching and support World Wildlife Day by supporting us.