Whose Elephants Are They? Part 2: Lessons From The Sebungwe Workshop (Zimbabwe)
June 2015, Volume 13-3

This is the second part of an article which appeared in the October 2014 issue of African Indaba, where I demonstrated that local communities and indigenous people worldwide are a real force for conservation and that poverty reduction through sustainable wildlife utilization should become a top priority objective at the international level, to counter the present law enforcement and demand reduction obsession in the international community. A few summits and months later, what has changed in community-based conservation in Africa?

The only community-based conservation oriented meeting has been the one organized by IUCN SULi, IIED, CEED, Austrian Ministry of Environment and TRAFFIC in South Africa. Titled “Beyond Enforcement“ and already featured in African Indaba. This workshop made important conclusions that influenced the Kasane 2015 summit on wildlife trafficking, and developed an interesting and valuable “Theory of change”.

Yet and worryingly, top-level international officials do not see community-based conservation as a priority. In a recently article on Al Jazeera the CITES Secretary General is quoted: John Scanlon, the secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which has been at the center of efforts to coordinate the international response, said law enforcement has been emphasized recently because poaching is at a crisis point. Local communities will be instrumental in protecting wildlife in the medium and long term, he said, but only if the animals survive the current bloodbath. “If I’m walking across the street and I get hit by a car, the first thing I want someone to do is stop the bleeding,” he said. “Once I’ve recovered, then I can think about whether I need to get more exercise and eat better. Wildlife’s been hit hard, and we need a trauma-based response.” Vol13_3_art5 So for the CITES SG the local communities will be instrumental only in the medium and long term. I hope that the Parties will think otherwise. It is their Convention. The community priorities are different from the CITES ones and communities control the fate of the wildlife they live beside. Communities need to obtain legal value from wildlife NOW if that wildlife is to continue. Maybe the CITES SG should be invited somewhere in the African bush (not in a luxury lodge) to see poverty and wildlife management challenges with his own eyes. He will eventually and hopefully change the level of priorities for Community-based conservation. The trauma is there. We have been focused on the bleeding for the last 40 years, and I already said in my previous article the tendency to look at the effects rather than the causes of illegal activities should be reversed.

Moving from theory to practice in community-based conservation is the pressing need of today. Since last year Zimbabwe, together with Tanzania, has been subject to a suspension of import of elephant trophies, unilaterally decided by United States’ Fish and Wildlife Service. Among other actions regarding enhancement of elephant conservation through trophy hunting, Conservation Force has co-funded to date three workshops in order to draft and finalize the new Elephant Management Plan of Zimbabwe. The first two, a CAMPIRE workshop and the National Workshop on developing an updated Elephant Management Plan, which were organized with the financial assistance of Dallas Safari Club and Shikar Safari Club, are featured in the AI February 2015 issue.

The third is the focus of this article. Zimbabwe has maintained a large elephant population for the past 15 years. Since 2001, no statistically significant decline has been observed, and according to the 2014 national aerial survey, the population estimate, within the usual 95% confidence limit, is about 82,000 elephants (not counting small populations in the conservancies and other areas in the south of the country, which likely add up to ca. 2,500 animals). In 2001, the estimates were about 88,000 elephants countrywide. However, of four regional populations of elephants in Zimbabwe, significant declines are reported in two regions and significant increases in the other two regions.

In late May 2015, Conservation Force funded, along with Padenga Holdings (the biggest crocodile farm in Zimbabwe), the Sebungwe Elephant Management Action Plan Workshop, organized by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority
(ZPWMA) in collaboration with the Tashinga Initiative.

The Sebungwe region, south of Lake Kariba, is one of the two regions in Zimbabwe that has witnessed a significant decline of elephants since 2001. According to the unofficial survey results, less than 4,000 elephants were estimated in 2014 (95% CL 2193-4622). In 2001 the estimate was nearly 14,000 elephants (95% CL 11,863-16,113). This represents an approximately 76% decline. After 2001 another survey was done in 2006, which, although showing a slightly higher estimate than 2001 (15,000), showed a quite high carcass ratio. It is likely that the elephant decline started after 2006 but that illegal activities were already high before that date.

The reasons behind the decline are still to be properly analyzed and the workshop suggested conducting a proper scientific study on this issue. One of the contributing factors is certainly the growth of the human population in the region that went from 200,000 people in 1980 to more than 700,000 in 2012. It has been scientifically demonstrated that when human population densities reach the threshold of 15 people/km2 elephant densities drop dramatically. There are areas now in the Sebungwe with more than 30 people/km2.

The workshop prepared an action plan to be inserted in the National Elephant Management Plan in preparation by ZPWMA. The action plan received valuable advice from all the participants, which included five Traditional Leaders (Chiefs). The Traditional Leaders reported that they are not being completely involved in the monitoring and implementation of wildlife activities and their people are not directly benefiting from their natural resources so due to poverty they turned a blind eye to poaching and helped poaching gangs in return of direct benefits. They also reported that they and their communities are not involved in the granting of tourist concessions and they and their communities are not seen as business partners. The Traditional Leaders’ concerns were heard and valued at the workshop. Steps were being taken in some areas to get the communities more involved, such as the development of a community conservancy. But the workshop and action plan placed even more of a focus on engaging the communities.

Several additional key activities on community-based conservation are part of the action plan, such as the revision of the CAMPFIRE Guidelines to increase the share of revenues beyond 55% to increase revenues at the ward level, and the developing of a legal instrument to provide for traditional leaders to be involved in management and distribution of elephant related benefits. It was recognized that trophy hunting is the activity that provides the major financial income to communities. Several suggestions to improve its governance were made (AI emphasis).

The main lessons from Sebungwe are these: community involvement in wildlife sustainable utilization may be one of the quickest and easiest responses to counter poaching not the slowest, with the big challenge being not working with communities, but changing our own western attitudes, mind-sets and skills.

Traditional leaders are very supportive of wildlife conservation but need to be properly engaged. They want education for their people which includes wildlife. If they want, they can stop poaching quickly, better than any law enforcement agency. But they need to be enabled to do so.

The international community and especially the development agencies need to realize this quickly. Sustainable use of wildlife cannot be done without the people that are sharing their land with wild animals. They should be priority number one, not law enforcement or the destruction of another ivory stockpile somewhere. The top down approach is not working. The biggest challenge remains on how to quickly increase the level of revenues for the communities and to lower the level of ownership rights (Appropriate Authority) down to the ward or village level. Zimbabwe, once the leader in wildlife management has once more the possibility to become it again. There are very positive signals and ZPWMA is very committed.

And finally as Nelson Mandela once said “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom. The steps that are needed from the developed nations are clear: The first is ensuring trade justice. I have said before that trade justice is a truly meaningful way for the developed countries to show commitment to bringing about an end to global poverty.” CITES Parties, are you listening?

Author: Marco Pani

Marco Pani is an international consultant in wildlife trade and management with a keen interest in Community-Based Conservation. He has served for 5 years as Director of TRAFFIC Europe Italy’s Office, being instrumental in the drafting of the new CITES legislation of Italy, 3 years as Associate Enforcement Officer in the CITES Secretariat in Geneva and 9 years as staff in the Italian Ministry of Environment. He is a member of the CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi) and Crocodile Specialist Groups of IUCN, Vice-President of IWMC-World Conservation Trust and Advisor to Conservation Force.