From where we stand: Taking away fishermen from the Zambezi River would only escalate illegal Wildlife Trade and poaching


Compiled by Byron Zamasiya-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

The COVID-19 which broke out in Wuhan city, Hubei Province, China late last year and spread to over 70 countries has taken the world by storm[1][2]. There is a general agreement that this disease which has its ecological reservoir in bats broke out in the Wuhan food market in China. The disease is stretching and testing health systems in both developed and developing countries. Governments in both developed and developing countries are instituting measures to curb the spread of this disease with some attempting to break the spread by instituting national lockdowns with varying periods, social distancing and encouraging citizens to wash their hands frequently with soap[3]. Zimbabwe followed suit by announcing a three-week national lockdown effective from the 30th of March 2020[4] extended by an extra two weeks. On the same day, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZIMPARKS) in Mbire district of Zimbabwe issued a warning to fishermen that they will no longer be allowed to fish without wearing life jackets. This article focuses on the implications of the national lockdown and this demand by ZimParks on illegal wildlife trade and poaching in Mbire district of Zimbabwe.

Kanyemba (Latitude: -15 42′ 00”, Longitude: 30 19′ 00” ) is located in Mbire district in Mashonaland Central Province in Zimbabwe. This area lies directly opposite the confluence of the Zambezi and Luangwa rivers. The inhabitants of this area are the Chikunda and Domas who are previously nomadic hunter-gatherers[5]. Kanyemba is a wildlife corridor for animals crossing from Mozambique and Zambia into Zimbabwe. Wildlife resources in Kanyemba are managed under the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous  Resources (CAMPFIRE) where communities get a share of funds from trophy hunting[6]. The community in Kanyemba relies on subsistence farming on the flood plains of Mwanzamutanda river. In most cases, the crops are swept away by floods, roasted by the sun or destroyed by elephants, warthogs and hippos[7]. Fishing with boats is the major economic activity for food, income and nutrition[8]. In this area, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association and the African Wildlife Foundation are working with 11 fishing cooperatives with a total of 140 members and supporting nearly 700 direct dependents. The two organisations assisted the groups in developing constitutions and trained them on business development and fisheries management. Presently, three fishing groups managed to renew their annul gill-net fishing permits with the ZimParks. This means that there are 4 boats from Ngwena Fishing Cooperative and 2 from Chiruhwe and Chansato. On average, a boat can get a total catch of 15kg per day. This will translate to US$45 per day per boat. The fish catch is normally sold as fresh to members of the community. When there is a surplus, the fishing groups can either keep the surplus in a refrigerated place in Luangwa. On rare occasions, the fishers preserve the fish through drying. Members of the fishing groups share their money at the end of each week and retain 20% for their operations[9].

Increased  poaching activities  

Fishing groups in Kanyemba play a pivotal role in monitoring illegal wildlife trade while they are conducting their fishing activities. If they sight any poachers, they quickly relay the message to Zimparks. Poachers use the Zambezi River to cross into Zimbabwe and then conduct illegal wildlife activities that include ivory poaching. Because of the national lockdown and its subsequent extension, poachers from other areas may likely tap into the absence of fishers on the river to intensify poaching activities. These poaching activities are likely to retard outcomes of the conservation efforts by ZELA, AWF and Zimparks in the area.

Poaching for the “pot” by local community members

Fish constitute the main source of protein for most families in Kanyemba. This is because livestock rearing particularly cattle is difficult in the area due to Tsetse flies[10]. Most households rely on fresh fish for their relish and rarely preserve the fish. In the absence of fresh fish from the fishing groups, it is most likely that cases of poaching for the pot will escalate. Statistics from the ZRP in Kanyemba shows that the major crime in Kanyemba is poaching for the pot by local community members. The major victims will be the small animals such as the hare, the duke, deer among others. Strategies that are likely to be used include trapping and snaring. Further, some community members may also embark on unauthorised subsistence fishing to supplement their diet. This behaviour will endanger the lives of the community members to attacks by crocodiles and hippos and escalate the statistics for Human-Wildlife Conflict.

Disturbance of fish breeding zones

With the Zimbabwean fishers absent from the Zambezi waters, it is most likely that Zambian fishers will encroach the Zimbabwean waters. Given this newfound freedom, it is most likely that the Zambians may fish in breeding areas. Furthermore, Zambian fishers are allowed to use monolithic fishing nets that are lower than the 3.5 inches size recommended for Zimbabwean fishers. With the freedom to venture into the Zambezi waters, we are likely to see a huge decline in fish populations post the COVID 19 period. This will indeed result in reducing cath and increase fishing effort.


  • Enhance the resilience of fishermen through income diversification

The COVID 19 presents important lessons for government and CSOs working in Kanyemba among other areas to ponder over how the resilience of communities living in marginal zones can be enhanced. The closure of fisheries due to the COVID 19 highlights the vulnerability of fishing communities not only in the Zambezi River but in other areas. This article has also presented the detrimental effects of the lockdown on wildlife conservation. Given the aridity of Kanyemba, a possible strategy is promoting nutrition gardens with solarized boreholes for fishermen’s women. This venture will help to promote nutrition and income outside of fishing. Further, development partners can also promote fishing ponds for fishing groups. Fishing ponds require lower fishing efforts and can help fishing groups to kick start their businesses after natural disasters such as COIVID 19.

  • Liberate communities to utilise their  unutilised quota for local consumption

A long-standing debate is finding ways of how communities living in wildlife-rich areas such as Kanyemba can benefit from these resources from a nutritional perspective. Given that trophy hunting in Zimbabwe has been suspended indefinitely[11], one wonders how communities will get a dividend from the resources this year. Since the laws prohibit local communities from hunting at all, one way to keep communities happy is by allowing them to utilise their unutilised quota for protein. This can be an innovative way to keep communities conserving the wildlife while directly benefitting from their efforts. Outside of this, it is likely that communities will either escalate poaching for the pot which is detrimental to wildlife conservation efforts.

This article concludes that COVID 19-induced lockdowns are detrimental to wildlife conservation efforts. The benefits from the lockdown in communities living in wildlife-rich areas are outweighed by the costs. It is therefore advisable to give exemptions to this sector.


[2] Andersen et al., 2020. The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine. 26, 450–452



[5] Bola et al., 2013. Coping with droughts and floods: A Case study of Kanyemba,

Mbire District, Zimbabwe. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 67–69 (2014) 180–186

[6] Frost, Peter, and Ivan Bond. “The CAMPFIRE Programme in Zimbabwe: Payments for Wildlife Services.” Ecological Economics 65, no. 4 (2008): 776–87


[8] Bosongo et al., 2014. Socioeconomic impacts of floods and droughts in the middle Zambezi river basin: Case of Kanyemba. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, 6(2) 131-144.

[9] ZELA 2019 Q3 Report to the AWF

[10] FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 2006 Uses in Zimbabwe. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome

[11] Mbire RDC

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