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New rhino sanctuary changes face of Tsholotsho communities

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BY TERRY WARD

To walk among rhinos is no subtle thing.

The animals themselves are, after all, enormous, with males tipping the scales at over 5,000 pounds and females typically punching around the 3,700-pound mark.

To watch them stop to pick up your scent and sounds when they can’t yet quite see you in the distance, their ears swivelling like satellite dishes, can make your heart thunder in your ribs.

But it was the measured deliberateness in the manner of two white rhinos moving through their new territory at the edge of Hwange National Park — Zimbabwe’s largest national park, from which the species was poached to disappearance sometime in the early 2000s — that struck me most as I plodded within meters of the magnificent Thuza and Kusasa at the Imvelo Ngamo Wildlife Sanctuary.

Then, once I regained my composure somewhat from the rush of it all, the surprise was that these animals are even here at all.

The newly established preserve for the two male white rhinos, set on communal land formerly used as important grazing grounds by livestock owners from neighboring villages in the Tsholotsho district, is at the heart of the Community Rhino Conservation Initiative (CRCI).

It’s a landmark conservation project in a country often overlooked as a safari destination in favour of neighbouring South Africa and Botswana.

And it’s the people who live in the areas bordering the park who are now charged with protecting Thuza and Kusasa.

The two bulls are the first animals to occupy what the CRCI hopes will eventually be a string of sanctuaries lining the park’s boundaries (with the eventual goal of someday safely reintroducing the animals into the 5,657-square-mile park itself).

In May of this year, after years of preparation, much of which took place during the throes of the pandemic, the animals (donated by a private reserve, Malilangwe, in south-eastern Zimbabwe) were translocated by road some 500 miles across the country to communal land that has been turned into a reserve for the purpose of protecting the rhinos.

And now, tourists can visit the rhinos at the CRCI and walk alongside them, protected by villagers paid to guard the animals.

The CRCI represents a milestone for conservation in Zimbabwe because it’s the first attempt to house rhinos on community land in the country, says Bruce Clegg, a senior ecologist with the Malilangwe Turst   who is also a member of Zimbabwe’s National Rhino Committee (part of ZimParks, the country’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority).

“If successful, the project may act as a catalyst for similar initiatives and, in so doing, help to foster an improved relationship between people and wildlife,” Clegg says.

“Africa is littered with failed community wildlife projects because they have been forced down a community’s throats and later rejected,” says Zimbabwean Mark Butcher, a former national parks ranger and managing director of Imvelo Safari Lodges, a key partner in the initiative.

He remembers when white rhinos roamed free in the Hwange’s southern grassy lands, and when the last one was poached away from it too (there are still a handful of black rhinos in the park’s remote northern reaches, Butcher says, but they are rarely seen). And he’s dreamed of seeing white rhinos back in Hwange since.

But while conserving and preserving for future generations is a “wonderful concept,” Butcher says, it’s one that is a luxury to many people in Africa who are starving or just trying to find the money to pay school fees for their children’s education.

“Particularly people living around the parks in Africa can’t afford that luxury [of a Western mindset toward conservation],” he says.

But Butcher is convinced the way to turn communities into conservationists is straightforward.

“It’s about creating jobs and socioeconomic developments so the cost of poaching is higher than the cost of protection,” he says.

To that end, the CRCI spent the pandemic training roughly 30 men from the local villages to be scouts. They are the brawn and brains behind the Cobras Community Wildlife Protection Unit (called the COBRAS).

The unit not only closely guards Thusa and Kusasa around the clock on foot patrols and from observation towers, but is also on call to help people from nearby villages address problem animals — such as elephants trampling a crop of watermelons or lions menacing a farmer’s cattle.

Female villagers are being recruited to the CRCI to work on intelligence and surveillance efforts related to anti-poaching too.

“People don’t have bank accounts here, they have cattle,” Butcher says.

And using communal land as a guarded wildlife sanctuary also serves as a buffer between the people living in the villages and the wild animals living in the national park that often menace them and their livelihoods.

Funds raised from tourists visiting the CRCI — where it’s possible to enter the land inside the sanctuary’s electrified gates to walk alongside the rhinos while listening to the stories of the COBRAS, some of whom were former poachers themselves — go directly toward community improvements to schools, boreholes and healthcare facilities.

Visitors currently pay a US$180 optional fee to walk with the rhinos, but next year a US$100 per person rhino conservation fee will be applied to all guests at Imvelo’s four safari lodges.

The revenue raised is already being used to fund operating expenses and nurses salaries at a new clinic in nearby Ngamo, in addition to supporting the rhino cause.

For 26-year-old COBRA Wisdom Mdlongwa, the rewards of helping protect these animals — that he is also seeing for the first time in his life here in his home region — are already becoming clear.

The COBRAS are celebrated as local heroes in their home villages, where kids play COBRAS in the sandy streets in the same way others around the world might play cops and robbers.

“I didn’t grow up seeing rhino,” Mdlongwa says.

“But now, in addition to tourists, local people also get the chance to come here and see them.”

And witnessing the impact on the local schoolchildren who visit the COBRAS and CRCI to see the rhinos has given him hope that in the future the village’s younger children will want to earn their livelihoods and provide for their families working to protect the animals.

“Once we have money from this project, it helps support our community in many ways,” he says.

Visitors who come to visit the rhinos and meet the COBRAS are usually staying at Imvelo’s Camelthorn Lodge, on a plot of communal land adjacent to the sanctuary.

One of Imvelo’s four safari lodges in and around Hwange National Park, the eight-villa property first opened its doors in 2014 and is managed by two women from neighboring Ngamo village.

Before construction began, the late village chief of Ngamo, Chief Mathuphula, was adamant that instead of building the lodge in the typical fashion of luxury canvas safari camps across Africa, it should be constructed in a permanent fashion, with the main lodge and accompanying guest accommodations made from concrete and stone instead of canvas.

That way, Camelthorn would stand the test of time for future generations — whether it would continue to operate as a tourist lodge in the future or not.

“The whole community is very proud of what has been achieved and what our local people have done with the building of Camelthorn Lodge,” says Johnson Ncube, the current Ngamo line village headman.

“I know that with this kind of lodge built out of concrete, it is going to remain standing for quite a long time, whereby even the coming generation will be able to enjoy it.”

“And I know one day, even if Imvelo is gone, this structure will remain standing for us where the community can run it as a lodge for more years and to benefit coming generations,” he says.

It is a sentiment that Butcher of Imvelo Safari Lodges wholly supports.

“The reality is that the long-term future of Africa’s wildlife will be decided by the rural communities that live with that wildlife,” he says.

Butcher says there are plans to open a second, larger sanctuary in 2023 on neighbouring communal land, with the selection and training for new COBRAS scheduled to start this November.

And in working to bring rhinos back to the border of Hwange National Park and onto community lands with CRCI, he says he is hanging his entire reputation on the concept of community-based conservation.

Afterall, Thuza and Kusasa — who were dehorned to protect them in transit as well as to make the animals less attractive to poachers — still face an ongoing poaching threat.

Butcher acknowledges it’s only a matter of time before there’s an attempted strike on the animals (the COBRAS are taught to shoot to kill any potential poacher).

But as long as the animals remain protected, the risks will be worth the reward.

“I strongly believe we have a moral obligation to ensure that the communities that live next door to wildlife and protect it — these communities that bear the consequences of living next door to the lions and elephants and rhinos, and what that means for their agriculture and families and their own livelihoods — that they are the ones that get the benefits from the wildlife and tourism benefits that derive from conservation.”

“The only way wildlife and wild places in Africa can survive is with the support of the communities that live around those protected areas and wildlife,” Butcher says.

“That’s why people need to come on safari, it’s critical to conservation.”

OZY

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Binga by-elections called off: ZEC

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BY STAFF REPORTER 

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has suspended the by-elections for wards 6, 8, 10, 15, and 23 of Binga Rural District Council in Matabeleland North Province which were scheduled for Saturday. 

ZEC chief elections officer Utloile Silaigwana made the announcement on Friday following a High Court order after  Collen Mudenda challenged the nomination of the five councillors who were recalled in October by the MDC-T party. 

“The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission would like to inform members of the public that the High Court has ordered the suspension of by-elections for wards 6, 8, 10, 15, and 23 of Binga Rural District Council scheduled for Saturday 03 December 2022,” Silaigwana said. 

“This follows urgent chamber applications by Collen Mudenda who challenged the nominations of John Simunene Sikabotu, Kingson Mpofu, Mathias Mudenda, Joseph Mwembe, and Wilson Siampolomba on the grounds that they were disqualified from contesting as candidates in terms of Section 119 (2) (h) of the Electoral Act.

“The Section states that a person shall be disqualified from being nominated as a candidate on the nomination day or the day of an election when he or she is in default with the payment of any levy, rate, charge, or tax due and payable to the council concerned for more than 120 days.”

Silaigwana said the High Court ordered that the Commission should not proceed with the by-elections for the five wards pending the hearing of thr cases which was postponed to  January 4, next year. 

He, however said  despite the Binga order, by-elections for ward 20 of Binga Rural District Council, wards 4, 5, and 18 of Gweru Municipality, and ward 28 of Mberengwa Rural District Council will go ahead ahead as scheduled on Saturday. 

 

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Myths on Covid-19 pandemic spread across Hwange

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BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI

Innocent Tevedzai, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Chamber of informal Association for People With Disabilities  says after getting inoculated vaccines to prevent Covid-19 pandemic, he was told that he will lose his fertility in the coming years. 

Royal Ndlovu, a Victoria Falls Combined Residents Association member says he was also discouraged from taking the vaccines after he heard that he was not only going to lose his fertility, but vaccines also meant losing his libido. 

Zimbabwe first rolled out Covid-19 vaccines early last year with the country relying mostly on Chinese made vaccines to bring the pandemic that paralysed the economy under control. 

 

Hwange district, where Ndlovu and Tevedzai come from was one of the areas that were prioritised by the government in the vaccination blitz as it sought to have tourist resorts re-opened for tourists, but community listening sessions held by VicFallsLive in some parts of Hwange district in Matabeleland North showed that some people are still sceptical about the safety of the vaccines.

Community leaders said the government did little to counter the misinformation, which is largely blamed on social media and this fuelled vaccination hesitancy. 

As such, ordinarily, Zimbabweans are caught up in a lot of myths and of course misinformation about the pandemic.

“We were told that we will not be able to conceive as this was intentionally done to reduce the population.” Tevedzai said. 

“Lack of verified information made it worse for us because we had to be vaccinated to gain public access at the time when misinformation and social ills such as teen pregnancies rose.” 

Hwange villagers, like other people in many parts of Zimbabwe were victims of misinformation about the vaccines, including allegations that those who got the Covid-19 vaccine will turn into baboons or that the vaccines were part of a scheme to reduce Africa’s population.

Even the World Health Organization says the Covid-19 outbreak and response was accompanied by an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not.

For Michael Ncube, a Victoria Falls City Council’ acting Public Health Officer, “this makes it tough for people to then find reliable sources and dependable guidance when they need it to fully curtail coronavirus,” he said. 

The myths Ncube added, included claims on cures and prevention.

 “For instance, people were told that when they vaccinate they will lose fertility or will die as this was deliberately done by the government to reduce Zimbabweans population, which is just mythical and therefore untrue,”

“We would like to assure out residents that the vaccines are safe and the country has highly specialised health personnels who also confirmed them and because of those vaccines, that’s why we have managed to set a barrier to prevent the transmission and that has paid off, as we have seen hospitalisations and deaths reduced and the economy fully opened.”

Zimbabwe has administered over 12 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines so far. 

 

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Armed robber storms Victoria Falls bank, walks away with US$12K

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BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI 

Zimbabwe Republic Police have revealed that the robber who held at ransom ZB bank workers on Wednesday after pretending to be applying for a bank loan got away with US$12 000 cash. 

The man dressed in black and white jersey, a hat and khaki as captured hours later through bank cameras pointing a shotgun towards workers while loading the money in his satchel that he was holding.

“The ZRP confirms that a robbery occurred at ZB Bank, Victoria Falls, on 30/11/22 at around 15.55 pm hours where an unknown suspect, armed with an unidentified pistol, posed as a genuine customer who wanted to enquire on the requirements to apply for a bank loan, “police said in a statement. 

“As the bank was about to close for the day, the suspect remained behind while other customers were leaving. After all the other customers had left, he produced a pistol and ordered the bank tellers to surrender cash in their tills. 

“The suspect stole US$12 000 before fleeing through the back exit door. Investigations are underway to account for the suspect.”

According to sources, the man was seen walking away until he disappeared. 

Meanwhile, police said they were also investigating an armed robbery case which occurred at a college in Chitunguza’s Seke residency on Monday, where three unknown suspects, armed with three unidentified pistols, attacked a security guard who was on duty at the premises and stole US$3 094 fuel coupons, US$8 076, and $43 100 cash after vandalising a safe. 

 

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