Zimbabwe: Rifa Conservation Education Camp – The Power of Place
June 2013, Volume 11-3

Editors Note: We want to draw attention to this initiative that has operated for more than 30 years with the support of the Zimbabwe Hunters Association. Members of this Association have provided both monetary and voluntary support to the Rifa Conservation Education Camp that has facilitated the participation of many thousands of school children to benefit from the wildlife conservation experience. Regrettably, the membership of this Association has dwindled from over 1000 to just over 100 in recent years and although the programme receives support from various local and international donors, it’s future is still in jeopardy.

Nestled amongst age old Wild Figs, Tamarinds and acacia trees lies the Zimbabwe Hunters Associations’ Rifa Education Camp.  Set on the banks of the original Zambezi River, (before the construction of the dam at Kariba) which has since silted up to become a flood plain which offers the youth of Zimbabwe an unbeatable wildlife education and conservation experience. Originally located at Nymomba at the base of Kariba Gorge in 1982, the camp was moved to its current location, five kilometres upstream from Chirundu, to facilitate ease of access for school buses. During the wet season as these buses would often get bogged down on the rough roads to the original camp.

On 11th April 1987 the new camp was officially opened by the then Minister of Education, Dr. D. Mutumbuka in the presence of ZHA Councillors, hunters, resource persons and Sanyati High School. The main purpose of the camp is to provide a unique wildlife education experience for both junior and
Advanced Level students. They attend to study conservation, biology, ecology and geography of the area, around course work developed by Leslie Maasdorp and her husband Hugh.  Both have exceptional energies and passion for Rifa and conservation through hunting. With its stunning landscapes and sunsets over the mighty Zambezi River, its variety of habitats – Mopani woodlands, grassy channels, large riverine trees, pebble beds in imposing cliffs and it’s amazing variety of ungulates and attendant predators offers the students and their teachers the finest practical experience possible. (From the history of Rifa Conservation Education Camp by Leslie Maasdorp).

Schools and interest groups which number over 1000 individuals for the year  will usually arrive mid-afternoon on a Sunday and after spending five nights in camp will depart on the Friday.  Those attending are made up of both rural (15 in 2009) and urban (11 in 2009) schools and adult interest groups comprising Birdlife Zimbabwe who time their trip with the arrival of the Carmine Bee-eaters, or the ripening of the Wild Figs that shade the camp. The Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association make use of the camp for the learner hunter and guides courses as well as the practical proficiency exam. With an archaeological site not far from the camp dating back more than 1500 years and the clear night skies make it a worthwhile visit for archaeology and astronomy groups.

The day normally starts with an early wake up, the mandatory safety lecture and a walk to one of the various interest spots in the area. These walks are guided by the ZHA’s resident camp manager, Dave Winhall a professional hunter and guide in his own right, the education officer, Freedom Hlongwane, an ex National Parks Officer, a volunteer hunter, being an experienced member of the ZHA and the resident National Parks Ranger. The Department of National Parks and Wildlife have been supplying a ranger from the beginning. These four are armed and help to protect and share their expertise with the schools.

The morning papers – the ‘Granite Gazette’ and the ‘Silicon Times’, coined by Dave and his partner Elspeth Baillie, who assists in managing the camp, are read on the roads leading to and from the camp for signs of the previous night’s activities.  The headlines are often the proceedings of the big four, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. The tracks are examined and identified to reveal what may have transpired the night before. At this stage the four S’s of tracking – shape, shine, sun and shadow are explained to the students, most of whom have never seen a lion or buffalo track before let alone porcupine or genet. The walks will at times take the students within close proximity to the dangerous game abundant in the area, often unseen as walks through the Jesse are common to gain access to a particular area and to date no nasty incidents have occurred although a few years back a family member of one of the staff was dispatched by lion whilst walking to camp from Chirundu in the dark no more than 500 meters from the camp gate. These interest areas include the Chipandaure River with is towering cliffs littered with bee-eater nests and pebbles, long pan – as the name suggests, a long narrow pan in a natural depression carved out by natures pan builders and a walk up Shumba Hill, so called because of the likely hood of bumping into lion.  At the top of the hill the students are able to see the vast panorama of the Rifa area before them and visualize the difference between a controlled National Parks area and an uncontrolled area on the opposite bank of the Zambezi – Zambia, with its river bank agriculture and deforestation sticking out in vast contrast.

Other walks include the natural hot springs with their sulphur stench, time for a mud bath!!! and Sunset Point at the edge of the Zambezi with its stunning view of the setting sun over the escarpment in Zambia.  Here the students study the effects of river bank erosion, which has been accelerated recently by the opening of flood gates at Kariba Dam. The effects of this have been devastating for the long established trees on the river bank that have now collapsed into the river and the camp itself that has lost a couple of water pumps due to the flooding. Near to Sunset Point is the ‘Golf Course’, an area of scattered trees and short grass mowed every evening by the resident ‘green keeper’ hippos. On occasion schools will be lead to Arinatious Pan within the heart of the area, should the elephant cow and buffalo herds allow, experiencing the comings and goings of life at this secluded pan.  An impala is hunted during the week and dissected to show students the inner workings of a ruminant’s digestive system. The heart and lungs are also dissected for their perusal.  Lungs are blown up to show students how much they can expand if they are still intact. The meat is often used by the school as the majority of the students have never tasted venison and to show them that meat comes from animals and not the butcher! The remains are laid out on the flood plain in front of the camp and attract hooded, white backed and lappet faced vultures, sometimes numbering over one hundred, as well as hyena and on occasion lion.  During the heat of the day the students undertake research projects making use if the camps extensive library, laboratory and museum facilities.  Each school compiles a project on their return to school which are well researched, entertaining and often humorous.  Early evening walks are conducted at times to further tire out the students, keeping noise levels down so that they can appreciate the night noises that only Africa can provide.  On the last night in camp the students will usually provide entertainment in the form of short plays, poems, song and dance much to the amusement of those present, particularly the mimicking of their teachers and guides!

Students are housed in three separate dormitories accommodating up to 30 individuals as well as 4 rooms for school staff and attending parents. Meals are supplied by the schools and prepared by volunteers, normally parents and school staff in the main kitchen and eaten in the dining room which doubles as a lecture room.

The main water supply at Rifa is pumped from the Zambezi one kilometre away to storage tanks at the camp. These pumps have been in operation from the beginning and are in desperate need of replacement. Thanks to the efforts of camp staff and members these pumps have been kept running by the typical Zimbabwean ‘make a plan’ system.  Rifa Education Camp is old and needs serious repair work to the roofing, damaged by baboons that roost in the fig trees, ablutions need repair and updating, fencing needs replacing. The roads to the camp are also in a bad state. The camps vehicles are old and worn out and need to be replaced. As you all know the camp needs money to operate, and although the schools are charged for the use of the camp, the true cost is not passed on as this would make it unaffordable for parents. The majority of schools attending are from disadvantaged back grounds. It has been the aim of the ZHA since its inception to provide a unique experience to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it.  Mention must be made of SCI Houston and Sacramento Chapters who have funded a number of schools,  The British Embassy in Harare, Autoworld/General Motors and Sandvik Tamrock Zimbabwe for their support as well as the countless other companies and individuals who have contributed funds, time and effort to the Rifa programme.

The Rifa camp and programme works hand in hand with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife
Management Authority who assist by donating a portion of the National Parks quota as well as supplying a resident Game Scout.

The future – As is well known, the future lies in our hands to educate the next generation on the
importance of wildlife and environment protection. The Zimbabwe Hunters’ Association, through its Rifa Education Camp, has been providing this education for the past 30 years and with the help of the hunting community worldwide can continue to do so for generations to come.

Please contact the Zimbabwe Hunters Association at zha@mweb.co.zw with any ideas or contributions you may have, or write to P. O Box HG 548, Highlands, Harare, Zimbabwe (Harare Office is located in 16 Walter Hill Avenue, Eastlea)

This article first appeared in the Zimbabwe African Hunter Magazine