Zimbabwe is one of the countries with large elephant populations. Photo: AP

By Takunda Mandura

Zimbabwe is home to the world's second largest population of elephants after Southern African neighbour Botswana — estimated to be around 100,000 — and sits over a legal stockpile of ivory worth US $600 million.

Not surprisingly, this naturally endowed Southern African nation is pushing for the lifting of the global ban on ivory trade enshrined in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), arguing that blanket curbs like these are tantamount to punishing it for its success in wildlife conservation.

Zimbabwe is not alone in challenging the restrictions in Appendix II of CITES, under which elephants are categorised as a species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled to avoid "utilisation incompatible with their survival".

Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, too, want an amendment that would allow them to sell their burgeoning ivory stockpiles to willing buyers.

Zimbabwe has 130 tonnes ivory stockpile. Photo:AP

The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) has been struggling to maintain its wildlife due to financial constraints.

Since ZimParks is not part of the government's budget outlay, it independently requires $20-25 million a year to fund its wildlife conservation activities.

The cash-strapped organisation is currently short of patrol cars, surveillance drones and personnel.

ZimParks requires an average of $178,000 monthly just to pay its regular staff, numbering slightly above 2,000, along with 700 to 900 contract workers. An additional 1,000 staffers are on the wish list.

"We face challenges with limited staff, and the lack of ranger patrol equipment and support services. We need to purchase planes, of which we don't have any at the moment. We need over 100 vehicles, and every region of the country requires graders, tippers, and drones for surveillance," ZimParks' director, Fulton Mangwanya, tells TRT Afrika.

Status quo

In 2019, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe asked for the right to sell ivory acquired through natural death, confiscation and culling. That demand was rejected at a CITES meeting in Geneva.

Illegal elephant tusks trade has been a big global concern. Photo: Reuters

International trade in ivory and elephants has been banned since 1989 despite Zimbabwe being able to conserve the species, resulting in the population reaching unsustainable levels.

Not being able to sell its existing ivory stockpile of 130 tonnes because of international regulation has further hindered the country's ability to raise funds aimed at improving its conservation efforts in the face of challenges posed by climate change.

In 2019, President Emmerson Mnangagwa formally implored for CITES to allow his country to sell its ivory, but the plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears. This prompted Zimbabwe to even consider pulling out of the convention.

Elephantine proportions

ZimParks manages one of the largest estates in the country, about five million hectares of land, or 13% of Zimbabwe's total land area

As Zimbabwe's human population grows, elephants are being restricted to smaller areas. The concurrent increase in elephant numbers is forcing herds to move out of their shrinking habitats, raid crops and sometimes enter into conflict with humans.

Elephants' habitats in Zimbabwe are shrinking. Photo: AP

More than half of the country's elephants live in and outside the unfenced Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's largest at 14,600 square kilometres. The park currently has more than 45,000 elephants against a capacity of around 15,000.

In 2019, at least 55 elephants starved to death in Hwange, leading to drilling of wells as deep as 400 metres to find water for the animals. An adult elephant drinks 680 litres of water a day on an average, and consumes 450kg of food.

Conservationists say that Zimbabwe can support about 45,000 elephants at best, albeit with vast grounds being available for grazing.

Human-wildlife conflict

Every year, crocodile and elephant attacks account for a large number of human casualties and injuries. In 2021, 71 deaths and 50 injuries were reported, against 60 deaths and 40 injuries the previous year.

According to Tinashe Farawo, spokesperson for ZimParks, elephants and crocodiles caused 90% of these deaths, followed by lions and buffalos.

International trade in ivory and elephants has been banned since 1989  Photo: AP

The good news is that Zimbabwe recorded a decline in wildlife poaching last year, thanks to consistent efforts. A total of 36 animals from key species were poached in 2022, down from 42 in 2021.

Seizures from poaching gangs included 25 rifles, 174 pieces of ammunition, 123 elephant tusks and three units of rhino horn. As many as 5,530 poaching snares were removed across the country during raids, and a total of 167 poachers were convicted last year.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) upgraded the African elephant to the Red List of Threatened Species because its numbers elsewhere in the continent are fast dwindling even as Zimbabwe battles the dilemma of how to keep its jumbo population under control.

In May 2021, Zimbabwean government stirred a hornet's nest when it revealed that it was contemplating elephant culling. In the case of elephants, entire family groups, or herds, have to be killed to prevent post-traumatic stress for the surviving animals.

Hunting quota

Before the millennium dawned, trophy hunting would generate about $16 million annually, much of which used to be set aside for wildlife conservation and habitat protection.

Several countries including Singapore have seized illegal ivories in recent years. Photo: AP

The country has pulled in less money from trophy hunting in recent years, due largely to habitat degradation following land reform and a flood of international criticism after the high-profile killing of Cecil the lion in 2015.

Since 1991, Zimbabwe has been selling permits annually to hunt a maximum of 500 elephants. The license to shoot and kill one elephant comes for $10,000.

Jumbo relocation

In 2022, an operation called Project Rewild Zambezi led to more than 2,500 wild animals from a southern reserve being relocated to one in the country's north as part of an initiative to shield them from drought.

The move was the outcome of realisation that the ravages of climate change may have replaced poaching as the biggest threat to wildlife.

Zimbabwe has been struggling to manage its elephant population. Photo: AP

About 400 elephants, 2,000 impalas, 70 giraffes, 50 buffaloes, 50 wildebeest, 50 zebras, 50 elands, 10 lions and a pack of 10 wild dogs are among the animals being moved from Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy to three conservancies in north Sapi, Matusadonha, and Chizarira.

This is one of Southern Africa’s biggest live animal capture and translocation exercises in 60 years.

The relocation programme is an expensive exercise, and ZimParks has in the past lamented about the inadequacy of funds to successfully execute conservation of this scale.

"The last time we carried out such a translocation of 100 elephants, it cost us about half a million US dollars," recalls spokesperson Farawo of ZimParks. The costs may be high, but Zimbabwe is soldiering on for now.

TRT Afrika