CHIPINDA POOLS – Like a gigantic wedding cake, the stunning Chillojo Hills rise from the southern bank of the meandering Runde River deep inside Zimbabwe’s second largest national park: the Gonarezhou.
Loosely translated, Gonarezhou simply means elephant wilderness.
The 5 000 square kilometre animal wilderness is not only home to the earth’s largest mammal (the elephant), it is also a habitat for the rhino, leopard, buffalo, lion as well as 147 other mammal species and 500 bird species.
It is also home to 116 species of reptiles, 34 frog species and 49 species of fish that include the rare Zambezi Shark, Freshwater Goby, Black Bream and the unique Turquoise Killifish.
The park, in the south eastern corner of Zimbabwe, was created in 1930 as a game reserve and was gazetted as a national park in 1968.
It was proclaimed a national park in 1975 and then linked to South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park in 2000 as part of the world’s last largest animal paradise – the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP).
At 35 000 square kilometres, the peace park is billed to make a huge contribution to the tourism fortunes of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, especially given its ecological distinctiveness.
However, 11 years after the GLTP was born, the peace park is still experiencing serious teething problems, specifically in Gonarezhou where some communities living adjacent to the park are threatening to turn it into a desert as they graze their cattle that number more than 5 000, deep inside the park.
Fears of outbreaks of foot and mouth, spread by buffalos to cattle, and tuberculosis, spread from cattle to buffalo, have intensified as cattle tracks scar the park like inflamed blood veins.
An immediate consequence of the illegal encroachment by the settlers, chiefly by the Chitsa community, has been intense competition for grazing.
This has effectively pushed wildlife deep into the animal sanctuary at a time when the park’s estimated 9 000 elephants are already far exceeding the park’s carrying capacity and straining vegetation.
Forest fires lit by poachers have also greatly reduced grazing and consumed 17 percent of the animal haven this year alone.
Pressure has been mounting on the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) since the invasion by the surrounding communities to rein in poachers who are posing a serious threat to the wildlife sanctuary.
The authority has so far recovered more than 2 000 wire snares, over 100 fishing nets, impounded in excess of 1 500 cattle, killed 43 dogs and arrested 106 poachers while 124 escaped. More than 160 animals killed by the poachers were recovered between 2007 and 2009.
At least 475 incursions were detected during the same period. Presently, weekly patrols recover an average 10 snares.
The ZPWMA is determined to overcome the challenges as it tries to maintain strong relations with the German-based Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), which has been propping up Gonarezhou since 2007.
The FZS, which says it does not believe in supporting lost causes, has so far pumped US$3 million into Gonarezhou under a US$10 funding programme that seeks to improve the park’s infrastructure, equipment and anti-poaching activities, among other things.
FZS’s Gonarezhou Conser-vation Project leader, Hugo van der Westhuizen, described the game park as so exceptionally different from the other two parts of the GLTP that Zimbabwe needs to actively protect it by reducing the impact of human activities
“You have a unique product here and its integrity needs to be preserved. The impact of humans is big and getting bigger and it needs to be controlled because it’s reducing the area’s potential,” said Westhuizen.
“It is very difficult for the people of Chitsa to feel the impact of the GLTP because promises of the GLTP have not materialised. We need to put the Zimbabwe side on the GLTP map.”
When the Chitsa people laid claim on part of Gonarezhou they initially occupied 40 square kilometres. But following the explosive land dispute, the Zimbabwe government ceded another 50 square kilometres, which the community continues to refuse to accept demanding an estimated 400 square kilometres that would further shrink the GLTP at a time when plans are afoot to increase the size of the entire park to 99 800 square kilometres.
“Ideally, we are not far from the optimal number of 140 rangers to protect the whole park, but the challenge comes when people start living in the park because we already face challenges with people living outside the park,” said Evious Mpofu, the ZPWMA’s Chipinda Pools area manager.
The government has now moved into Gonarezhou to monitor the erection of a 36,7km-long fence meant to stop any further incursions by the villagers into the park.
This followed President Robert Mugabe’s announcement during the opening of the Third Session of the Seventh Parliament of Zimbabwe in August that the GLTP treaty would be ratified during the current session of Parliament.
The erection of the fence has, however, heightened tempers and the Chitsa people are fuming because they were not consulted.
Misheck Komundela, the chairperson of the Chitsa community had this to say:
“They are erecting this fence across our land by force. This fence is illegal. This is our ancestral land. This land was never part of the park and the government never informed us that our land was now part of the game park.”
ZPWMA director-general, Vitalis Chadenga, is however urging the Chitsa community to respect the country’s national laws that protect national parks.
“We are basically saying, after engaging and negotiating with these people for the past 10 years, enough is enough. The boundaries of the park must be respected. These guys have gotten away with murder and enough is enough. We should separate politics from parks management,” he said.
South African National Parks’ head of Veterinary Wildlife Services, who doubles up as chairperson of GLTP’s Livestock Comm-ittee, Markus Hofmeyer, said it was still very difficult for tourists to get to the Zimbabwe side of the peace park.
Tourists from either Mozambique or South Africa are travelling long distances to either Sango or Beitbridge border posts to access the park. They are also enduring long delays at the border posts to reach Gonarezhou.