By Keith Wood
News from Zimbabwe has rarely been good over the past 20 years: violent voter suppression, regime-endorsed land confiscation, staggering HIV/AIDS rates, and staggering inflation combine to paint a tragic picture. Out of years of tragedy, a glimmer of hope emerged- an island of land where doing the right thing has continued to hang on. A place where property rights have been respected and the endangered game animals have been protected. This shining star is called the Save (sah-ve) Valley Conservancy, and it sits in Southern African nation’s Eastern Lowveldt. Now, all that has been built and preserved in the Conservancy is under assault from Zimbabwe’s corrupt regime.
Only in Zimbabwe would the properties of the Save Conservancy be considered utopian societies. Barefoot children walk miles on dusty paths to school, workers cook their rations of Sadza cornmeal and organ meat over open flames, game scouts scramble to protect endangered species such as the black rhino, and the only store in the area has been closed by “War Vets” (squatters used as political enforcers by the Mugabe regime). But in a nation with a fractured education system, rampant poaching, an estimated 95% unemployment rate, and a life expectancy of less than 50, any job is a good job, any food is good food, and education is a privilege that few children enjoy. After witnessing so much destitute humanity on the five-hour drive from Zimbabwe’s capitol of Harare, passing through the Conservancy’s boom gate is like entering a passageway into hope. That hope is fading.
This month, under the banner of “indigenization” and ignoring decades of settled property rights, the various farms and ranches that constitute the Save Conservancy have been forced into “partnerships” with individuals designated by the Mugabe/ZANU-PF regime. These “farmer partners”, which include political and military leaders, have been granted 25-year leases and will control the hunting permits granted by the National Parks and Wildlife Authority (who, ironically, is tasked with protecting the nation’s natural resources). Real indignation efforts have been under way for years and an agreement was nearly made in 2011 that would allow the landowners to maintain their properties in a good faith partnership with other members of the local community. Those negotiations became a stalemate when the other parties demanded “cash on the table.” The result was partnership brought by the tip of a political bayonet. The Save’s leadership has called the government’s actions “a criminal act” and is confident that the move will destroy the region’s crucial hunting industry.
In reality, this has nothing to do with indigenization and everything to do with greed. There is a real sense among Mugabe’s cronies that the 88-year-old President’s days on this Earth are growing short. Unsure of what faction of the ZANU party will take over after his death, those in power are stealing everything that they can while they have the influence to pull it off. The irony is that the real losers of this indigenization effort will be the local indigenous population who have survived on the food and wages produced by the Save‘s safari industry over the last twenty years.
The Save sits just over the mountains from Mozambique and started as a cattle operation in the 1920s by Jimmy Whittall when he immigrated to what was then Rhodesia from Turkey. Wildlife was always part of the picture, which made the agricultural operations a constant challenge- lions and cattle don’t mix. Though the farm, known as Humani, eventually proved to be a success, Jimmy’s son Roger had a vision to turn this successful farm into a place where wildlife could flourish. In 1991, after years of planning and negotiations, he convinced his neighbors to tear down their fences, sell their cattle, and form a sprawling conservancy where wildlife could move freely under the protection of the various property owners- the million-acre Save Valley Conservancy was born. The difference between the Save and Zimbabwe’s tribal lands and safari areas is that the Save sits on private lands which do not depend on tax revenues, international aid agencies, well-intentioned charities, or environmentalist groups to operate. The Save has flourished as a collection of private-sector businesses built on the backs of hard-working people both black and white, working toward a common goal of sustainable conservation. It survives because foreign hunters are willing to travel thousands of miles to a sportsman’s paradise frozen in time.
Where Africa’s wildlife is concerned, there are two distinct factions with an interest in preserving the various species. The “green” movement seeks to protect the animals through pure preservation. While emotionally well intentioned, their tactics are faced with the harsh realities of Africa’s failing economies, exploding populations, profiteering poaching syndicates, habitat loss, and starving people. In stark contrast is the conservation movement, which believes that the sustainable use of wildlife is the most valuable way to preserve the species in their natural environment while managing them to prevent habitat destruction, animal-human conflicts, and to feed the very individuals who will guarantee their survival. Conservationists call this the “North American model.” The Save is a classic example of the effectiveness of this model where sustainable trophy hunting provides the revenues necessary for aggressive anti-poaching efforts, habitat preservation and improvement, and places a fiduciary incentive on the local population to protect the species. The animals that need to be protected are protected, and the animals that are in-abundance are hunted responsibly.
The game on the Save has managed for years using quotas determined by the Conservancy’s board in order to achieve and maintain a proper balance of a given species, as well as the population and habitat as a whole. The quota is set annually with a long-term vision of biodiversity in mind. Contrary to popular opinion, elephants are severely overpopulated in much of Southern Africa and can be incredibly destructive to the habitat that supports entire ecosystems. According to the World Wildlife Fund, elephant populations in southern Africa are large and expanding, with some 300,000 elephants now roaming across the sub-region. Elephant-human conflicts are common in the tribal areas, with hungry young bulls often raiding maize crops, which are vital to the local food supply. When the conservation model works, the foreign hunter pays hard currency to hunt the problem animal, the money helps protect and expand habitat so fewer animals must be killed, the animal no longer raids the crops, and the locals are provided with both employment and badly-needed protein in the process. This is the way it works in the Save: like all game animals, elephants are hunted responsibly within the limits of their habitat.
The oldest of the Save’s safari operators, Roger Whittall Safaris operates on the Whittall family’s Humani homestead, just one of 21 properties that make up the Conservancy. Humani alone employs and supports an estimated 550 workers through its safari operations, citrus groves, row crops, and general ranch maintenance. Safaris provide direct employment and competitive salaries for Professional Hunters, trackers, skinners, cooks, and maids. These wages are often supplemented by tips, which can amount to several weeks’ pay. The indirect economic impact of safaris is similar to any tourist industry, though generally in much greater amounts due to the high prices paid by hunters. All of these jobs are now at risk: if legitimate hunting operations cease, the flow of outside currency will cease as well.
For example, a hunter who comes to the Save to hunt cape buffalo with one of the many safari operators will pay approximately $13,000 as well as a 2% government levy, both of which provide revenue for the game department. Each property’s 2011 quota for buffalo was around 40 animals, which equates to a minimum of over $520,000 of revenue for the ranch and its operations, and that doesn’t count the other varieties of game that are hunted on the property. Though expenses cut deeply into those figures, the fact is that no “green” photo safari camp can have the massive economic impact to conservation efforts and the local economy as sport hunting operations. Besides, few “Eco tourists” bring their cameras and tourism dollars into Zimbabwe except perhaps to walk across Victoria Falls from the Zambia side- they opt instead for the plush lodges and relative political stability of South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania.
In Zimbabwe, effective anti-poaching efforts are a key element to wildlife conservation and mean the difference between a flourishing ecosystem and miles of wilderness devoid of any sign of game. It is no secret that much of the fee revenue collected for anti-poaching efforts on government lands is embezzled by corrupt ministers whose wives go on lavish shopping trips to Europe with funds meant to put game scouts in the field. Without these tireless eyes on the ground, the animals are at the mercy of starving locals who use wire snares to meat hunt and professional poachers of ivory and rhino horn who fulfill the demands of the Far East, often in collaboration with wildlife officials. The only government concessions with adequate controls on poaching are those leased by private sector safari operators with an interest in preserving the game.
According to sources inside Zimbabwe, 6.3 tons of illegal rhino horn disappeared from government storage three years ago and there’s demand for plenty more. The horn is shipped to Asia via the North Korean embassy in Harare at a rate of $50,000 per kilogram. Asians aren’t the only ones creating a demand for poaching, a reported 11,000 illegally procured zebra hides have been smuggled to Germany. If government game scouts arrest the poachers or complain about their lack of pay or equipment, they are sometimes taken from their homes in the darkness- never to return alive. It’s the kind of story that’s whispered to you by a tracker or scout in hope that the “outside” world will hear about it. This is the staggering reality of a brutal dictatorship, and the results have been tragic for Zimbabwe’s game animals.
For years, the Save Conservancy’s dedicated game scouts have been privately funded and are not subject to the whims of Ministerial corruption. The funds come from the revenue driven by sport hunting, and the meat that sustains the scouts during their long hours afield is provided by the hunters’ quarry. Due to the effectiveness of this private sector anti-poaching effort, endangered species such as the black rhino are often transported to the Save Conservancy for protection. Thanks to these efforts, the Save is one of the few wild places left on Earth where one can walk among the “big five” of lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, and black rhino. Without the funds generated by the traditional safari operators, these anti-poaching efforts will cease to exist.
The conservation efforts in the Save have paid off. The combined properties support one of the most diverse animal populations in Africa. Large herds of elephant and buffalo visit water sources inhabited by crocodiles and hippos while nyala bulls battle for breeding rights among troops of screaming baboons. Both black and white rhinos roam the thick bush, many of them sporting nubs of horns which have been cut off to discourage poachers. Scores of impala, kudu, and warthogs provide food supplies for healthy predator populations of lion and leopard. In most areas of Africa, you either see an abundance of elephants and predators or, in their absence, an abundance of plains game. In the Save, you see them all in great numbers. With the new “stewards” in charge, all that is about to change. If the rampant poaching in the absence of the economic incentive of conservation that we have seen across Zimbabwe and Africa is any indicator, the game animals of the Save are in big trouble. There’s about to be a “fire sale” on wildlife in the Save, with zero interest in anything but short term financial profit.
Despite death threats and years of an uncertain future, for now the farmers and safari operators in the Save are clinging to their homesteads and hoping to negotiate a livable arrangement with their new “partners.” They stay because it’s their home, they stay because of the people who they employ, and they stay because of the animals that depend on them. Perhaps this latest blow to their property rights will be the final nail in the Conservancy’s coffin. Let’s hope not for the sake of the farmers, the hundreds of employees, the children in their schools, and the endangered and threatened species that they conserve and protect. Like the future of the Save Conservancy, the future of Zimbabwe’s people and wildlife remain uncertain. What is certain is that if effective conservation efforts like those in the Save are ceased due to greed, racial divisions, or political cronyism, the species will suffer a dire fate.
Keith Wood is a former state lobbyist for NRA-ILA and is currently a contributor to American Hunter, American Rifleman and Petersen’s Hunting.