The nexus between subsistence poaching and human-wildlife conflict in the Zambezi Valley


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

Rural District Councils and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in the Zambezi Valley receive numerous requests for problem animal control (PAC) and reports of destruction by wildlife. These problems range from the destruction of crops in dryland fields, stream bank fields (flood plains), nutrition gardens, domestic livestock, and grain storage. The increase in the requests for PAC and reports of Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) is happening when most of these communities are mainly harvesting small grains. The problem animals are now forcing some farmers to harvest their sorghum and millet before it reaches the appropriate moisture content level for fear that wildlife will destroy their produce. One of the major causes of the increase in cases of human-wildlife conflict in the Zambezi Valley is subsistence poaching. This blog highlights how community members conduct subsistence poaching, its impact on HWC and suggests measures to curb this harmful practice.

Poaching and poaching methods

Poaching is hunting, capturing, and killing any wildlife without a permit from the Wildlife Management Authorities[1]. Although poaching has international and domestic dimensions, in this blog, i will focus on a local level or subsistence poaching. At the community level, the motivation for subsistence poaching is usually for the “pot” or household consumption or subsistence purposes. Usually, the subsistence poachers target wildlife such as warthogs, impalas, kudus, dukes, among other small animals. In other circumstances, poaching is conducted for rare animal products that include animal skin, fur, feathers, bones and teeth. Some of the products from rare animals are used for performing religious and traditional rituals. Animals that are usually targeted for ritual purposes include pythons and pangolin.

Several methods are used for subsistence poaching by communities reliant on wildlife. Although this article may not be exhaustive in unpacking the various poaching methods, it highlights some of the most common ones gathered during interactions with multiple communities in the Zambezi Valley. These methods include hunting with dogs, snaring, use of torches, burning the forest, etc. Poaching with dogs is an old age illegal hunting method. The poacher usually uses dogs and catapults to catch or kill the wildlife. This hunting method targets smaller animals such as warthogs, hares, dukes and impalas. It is generally conducted during the day, hoping that this will escape the eyes and ears of the Parks Rangers. Snaring is currently the most prevalent and ruthless method. This approach is usually used along wildlife corridors or on treks used by wildlife to access water holes. Plain wires are used for setting the traps and catch the legs or necks of the target animals. Although poachers hail this approach as highly rewarding, in most cases, more animals can be caught than what the poacher can consume. This may result in some animals caught by the snares being left to rot. Some poachers use bright torches at night to flash target animals in their fields or bushes during the crop growing season. When an animal is beamed with a bright torch, it is blinded and cannot move. The poacher will then move towards the animal and strike it on its head with a heavy club. This approach is seasonal, and its success depends on the poacher’s ingenuity. The last method that is also used in subsistence poaching is burning the forest or the wildlife habitat. This approach is non-selective to both wildlife and vegetation. The subsistence poachers will start a fire on one side of the forest and wait with spears, axes, catapults, and dogs on the other side to strike at the wildlife as these flee the smoke and fire. Slow movers such as pythons usually get destroyed by fire in the melee.  This tactic is also used by poachers when they are running from ZIMPARKS rangers. The success of these illegal hunting tactics hinges on community cohesion in failing to report each other to the wildlife management authorities.

Impact of subsistence poaching on Human-wildlife conflict

Disturbance of food chains and food webs

The rule of thumb in the forest is that the wildlife depends on each other for survival. There must be predators and prey[2]. For instance, pythons feed on rodents such as rats and mice. So, when communities illegally kill pythons for whatever reasons, the population of rodents (rats and mice) will exponentially grow. The boom in the rodent population will result in heavy destruction of agricultural produce in the fields. In most wildlife reliant communities where pythons have been killed, it is a fact that the primary cause of food insecurity is the destruction of crops by rodents.

Another example is that when the smaller animals are poached, they interrupt the food chain or food web for carnivores such as leopards, hyenas, painted dogs, lions and cheetahs. In a balanced ecosystem, these carnivores’ prey on smaller animals. The decimation of their prey from the wildlife population through poaching will imply that the predators will be left with no alternative game sources except domestic livestock such as goats, sheep, donkeys, and cattle. The last example is that when humans poach or poison baboons, they interrupt the food chain for mostly leopards. As such, most wildlife communities with limited baboon populations experience high cases of goat attacks by leopards. Poaching also reduces the number of small wildlife that is available for consumption by crocodiles. This will leave the goats, cattle and humans exposed for attacks by crocodiles at watering points. I, therefore, conclude that subsistence poaching creates an imbalance in the wildlife ecosystem. Although it may cause a population explosion of certain species, it also escalates the human-wildlife conflict.

Destruction of wildlife habitat

Zimbabwe is losing massive tracts of forest every year due to poaching[3]. The use of a fire in subsistence poaching in the Zambezi Valley leads to the unselective destruction of the wildlife habitat and food sources. The subsistence poachers would be burning the “bedrooms, dining rooms, kitchens and living rooms” of wildlife. The grass and shrubs on which most animals depend for food and hunting space will be destroyed. It is the areas where humans are leaving that would be left with shrubs and grass. As such, the wildlife would be left with no alternative habitat but to destroy the people’s fields and gardens. When this happens, it would be so clear that cases of human-wildlife will escalate.

Given these circumstances, what can stakeholders and communities in the Zambezi Valley do to control the problem of subsistence poaching:

  1. Establish ward-level anti-poaching units

An immediate solution to the problem of “poaching for the pot” or subsistence poaching is establishing a ward-level anti-poaching unit (APUs). This approach is appropriate for those wards that benefit from the Communal Area Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE). The APUs can comprise young men and women from the community who can undergo training by Zimparks with the support of NGOs. The scouts can be used to conduct anti-poaching patrols. They can also remove snares during their patrols. Some districts such as Mbire are reporting a reduction in subsistence poaching because of establishing such units.

  • Establish alternative sources of livelihood

It is not a secret that communities reliant on wildlife resources have limited livelihood opportunities due to biophysical constraints. Community development in their areas is primarily driven by proceeds from trophy hunting and head tax. One suggestion that can be tried to reduce reliance on wildlife resources is piloting high-value crops such as amaranth, quinoa, and chillies. These crops can provide alternative sources of income that can be used to purchase other sources of protein.

  • Empower communities to establish and run Wildlife Conservancy Trusts

Under the current wildlife management arrangements, the Rural District Council is the one that is vested with the appropriate authority (AA). Communities that manage wildlife resources under the Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) are only recipients of disbursements from wildlife hunting. These disbursements are usually in local currency as opposed to the hard cash paid by the hunters. The RDCs may devolve the AA to the ward level through the establishment and strengthening of community Trusts. Although there is a fear of the unknown from losing revenue, the councils may still recoup money from the communities through land leases and management fees. Although this approach is iterative and requires intensive capacity building of community institutions, it allows the communities to manage their resources and appreciate the value of wildlife. Once communities see the benefits trickling in, they may adequately police their resources and reduce poaching.

  • Raise awareness on the importance of wildlife for community development

Stakeholders can also raise awareness of the importance of wildlife in their community development initiatives. The awareness can also touch on why poaching is terrible for the communities and the resultant effects. This is important because most service delivery issues such as repairing roads, building classrooms and clinics in wildlife reliant communities are funded by proceeds from wildlife sales/trophy hunting. Once communities begin to realise this intricate interlinkage, it may dissuade them from subsistence poaching. Strategies that may be used include establishing or strengthening environmental health clubs in schools. Children can then be empowered as ambassadors to raise awareness and educate their parents on the importance of wildlife.

The conversation continues-watch out for my next blog.




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