Masvingo — THE perimeter fence separating the crowded Runyararo West suburb and Victoria Ranch lies in ruins on the ground after being tripped repeatedly by hundreds of trespassers who cross through it everyday.
A few metres from the suburb farther down into the ranch, everything seems to be at peace with itself with the lush grasses and verdant bushes seemingly defying the tide of modernisation that is slowly but surely encroaching into it.
However, the state of affairs farther deeper into the ranch paints a gloomy picture owing to the complete absence of any form of vegetation with the ground almost blackened with ash from burnt-out grass and bushes.
There is almost no sign of life with the only indication of the existence of life being the various tracks made by humans, wheelbarrows and even scotchcarts and tractors that haphazardly bisect the Victoria Ranch landscape precipitating unprecedented land degradation.
A meticulous scrutiny later reveals that the rendezvous of all the wheelbarrows, scotchcarts and tractors is the wildlife-rich Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy which stretches from the western parts of Masvingo bordering Mushandike National Park and extending to the south of the city along the Masvingo-Beitbridge Highway.
The Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy, an amalgamation of nearly 20 indigenous conservancy operators who benefited from the Government’s land reform programme, extends for over 15 000 hectares and besides being a domicile of diverse wildlife the area is also endowed with thick forests.
However, the proximity of the conservancy to Masvingo city has spelt doom for this once thriving bastion of plant and animal life that had the potential to add a fascinating tourism spectacle to the country’s oldest town under the guise of the land reform programme.
Thousands of marauding wood and game poachers have been daily muscling their way to the expansive Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
Intermittent power cuts in Masvingo city, the province’s biggest primate urban settlement in population size, triggered huge demand for firewood which sparked massive logging of forests in the Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy leaving it on the throes of desertification.
“We have to contend with both wood and game poachers mainly from the lawless Runyararo West suburb who make daily forays into this conservancy in search of firewood and game meat and we are unable to control let alone contain them.
“As conservancy operators we devised a way of beefing up security here by introducing shifts amongst farmers to carry out patrols but it seems our efforts are not enough because we continue to lose more forests and game here,” said Mr Alex Mudamburi, one of the conservancy operators.
It is the prospect of rampant desertification that has sent a chilling warning to the conservancy operators of the dangers that lie ahead as the marauding poachers were also behind destructive veld fires that have been scorching vast tracts of forest and grass making the threat of desertification more real in the eyes of the farmers.
“The demand for firewood in the city (Masvingo) is even making our task more difficult because these poachers will always come back here buoyed by the existence of a ready firewood market.
“Every week we confiscate various firewood-ferrying items like wheelbarrows, scotchcarts and tractors and even arrest some of the poachers but they are not deterred.
“They keep descending here in droves and we wish the law enforcement agencies could help us to avert the real prospect of desertification,” said Mr Solomon Chinaka, an employee at Swartfontein farm, which is part of the Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy.
The spectre of increased logging of trees and burning of grass has instilled apprehension amongst the new conservancy operators who fear that their project might be stillborn since the successful operation of wildlife conservancy requires a sustainable environmental policy management, which is the cornerstone of successful conservancy opera- tions.
However, the prospect of more power cuts in Masvingo city seems to be delivering a body blow daily to the aspirations of the indigenous conservancy operations in Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy who have to be content with watching their dreams slowly being turned into virtual nightmares by the scourge of wood poaching bent on turning their paradise of fauna and flora into an abyss of desertification.
The scourge of desertification in Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy has already begun to manifest through increased siltation in some perennially flowing rivers such as Mushandike River, which quenches the thirst of wildlife in the nearby Mushandike National Park.
Various other rivers such as Mucheke that feed into Lake Mutirikwi, Masvingo’s sole water source, have also been showing signs of fatigue due to increasing choking from siltation believed to have its genesis in massive land degradation in Masvingo wildlife conservancy which is part part of the huge water reservoir’s catchment area.
A dark cloud of desertification is precariously hanging over Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy and its unstoppable condensation will no doubt precipitate the gradual but eventual wiping out of animal species such as eland, buffalo, zebra,kudu, wildebeeste among others that have known no other habitat besides that area.
The wanton logging of trees has also created an eternal fireball that threatens to consume everything in its wake and thereby signing the death warrant of what was once a promising peri-urban eco-tourism venture that had the potential to turn around the economic face of Masvingo city as a whole.
However, there is no doubt that on the epitaph of Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy, the scourge of wood poachers will be boldly written more so as the demand for firewood continues to surge in Masvingo city buoyed by recurrent power outages and expansion of suburban areas.
Co-ordinator of Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy Mr Isaiah Muzenda said desertification was unstoppable in the conservancy if no urgent measures were not taken to arrest the ongoing rampant logging of trees.
Mr Muzenda said to show the magnitude of poaching problems confronting Masvingo Wildlife Conservancy, a total of 10 000 hectares were this year ravaged by veld fires started by poachers in search of game meat and firewood.
He said the contagion effect of deforestation and the subsequent desertification was also likely to spill over into the adjacent Mushandike Wildlife Sanctuary which he said might also be caught in the vortex of rampant logging of trees and poaching of wildlife.
“‘We are heading towards total disaster because desertification is now a reality that is before us if something is not done.
“Trees are being logged at a rate unknown before by the poachers who are attracted by the presence of a ready market in the city. We need to do something before it is too late,” warned Mr Muzenda.
He added: “This year alone about 10 000 hectares were reduced to a black surface in the whole conservancy due to veld fires that were started by poachers and they seem not to be relenting more so that firewood continues to be on demand in the city.”
Mr Muzenda said the problem of desertification was growing everyday pointing out that the conservancy operators were failing to realise meaningful production due continued decimation of wildlife.
He stressed that desertification and the subsequent wiping out of wildlife will be a sad indictment on the land reform programme which sought to break the monopoly and stranglehold of whites in lucrative sectors as conservancy operations by allocating some of them to indigenous black Zimbabweans.
As the clock of time ticks, it remains to be seen whether the indigenous conservancy operators in Masvingo will be able to stop the tide of desertification that is threatening to shatter the dream of black empowerment.