Elephants cause havoc to endangered community
In the sweltering Zambezi Valley, in the remote part of Binga, 460 kilometres north west of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, 70-year-old Tivuke Siamonga recalls how elephants recently trampled down his only son to death.
Words fail Siamonga, a member of the minority Tonga tribe resident in the Valley, as he recalls the fateful day. Even as a community renowned traditional healer he knows that elephants are just another mysterious disease afflicting his people and he does not have a remedy.
"I don’t have a solution to this rampaging menace of elephants," says Siamonga whose face quickly contorts with pain at the mere mention of the word ‘elephant’. "We were not threatened by elephants before but now they are everywhere. It is not only that we risk being trampled but we are threatened with starvation as the elephants destroy our crops."
Although man is known to dominate to creatures and the environment, in the Zambezi valley he has met his match. The elephant has become the most dominant threat not only to man but to the environment as well. The police say since January this year 11 people have been trampled to death in Siamonga’s area. And as drought prevails in this southern African country, the number is likely to increase as the elephants turn to homesteads for food.
The Zambezi Valley lies within Zimbabwe’s natural region four, which is arid and is not suitable crop production as it receives less rainfall. The area lies within the world famous Hwange National Park, the country's biggest game sanctuary. But, just like any other minority Tonga people resident in this area, Siamonga cannot leave because of his roots which are deeply embedded in the area. For the Tonga people such areas are a source of their livelihood since they rely on wildlife for food.
"It is no longer safe for us to remain here but we cannot move because our ancestors are buried here," says Stan Siangalo, a Binga resident. "We are being threatened both sides-our lives and food. We don’t mind meeting an elephant once in a while than every day." Siangalo is of the opinion that elephants should be culled and reduced to a manageable size. A visit to Binga area reveales rampant environmental degradation as the elephants compete for scarce vegetation. But co-habitating with such a destructive and dangerous roommate is not only a challenge to Siamonga and Siangalo’s community but for Zimbabwe as a country.
However, the country is in a precarious position as it is bound by a Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulation that opposes totally culling of elephants for the international ivory market. Environmentalists say poaching is on the increase following the invasion of the countryside and white owned commercial farms by supporters of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), led by the country’s liberation war veterans.
Land hungry people have not only occupied farms but they have also settled in some of the country’s national parks leading to an influx of poachers. "Lawlessness is prevailing in the country side and no one is monitoring the situation in the wildlife areas," says Brian Mutimbanyoka, an environmental monitor with Environment 2000. Although he cannot say how many elephants have been killed since February 2000 when settlers moved in farms and wildlife areas he feels they are threatened. Zimbabwe has an elephant population of 84 000 and environmentalists say the population is increasing at a rate of 4 500 a year.
With this high birth rate all is not well for Siamonga and his community. Environment and Tourism Minister, Alfred Nhema says the figure is not sustainable "and for our future generations who would want to benefit from this heritage, the future is gloomy for them. The situation is unfortunate because by continuously keeping the high number of elephants, we are destroying the environment and endangering the same elephant that we seek to protect." Coupled to this high number is also the future of other species especially the black rhino, the country's most endangered animal that is also under threat from the elephant.
"To say we have many elephants would be an understatement," says an ecologist, Tapera Bwoni. "We have reached a point where we are saying we do not know what to do with the elephant population here. "Our rhino here is now endangered because it is being displaced by the elephant as the battle for food continues." Bwoni says an adult elephant drinks close to 200 litres of water per day and a total of 70 percent of the food leaving the rest of the animals to share 30 percent of the food.
Zimbabwe has tried without success to offer some of the elephants for free to Western countries, but so far, there have been no takers. The country has three other national parks that have not been affected but to translocate the elephants is also expensive, as it has to fork out US$9090 per beast. On the other hand, Zimbabwe has a huge stock of ivory, 24 000 kilogrammes, costing the country US$636 to manage every month, which if sold could get the country the much needed foreign currency. However, as for Siamonga and his community, international politics continue to frustrate efforts to co-habitat in harmony with their heritage.