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[File: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

Zimbabweans fighting to get out, elephants fighting to stay in

Gonarezhou National Park located in southeastern Zimbabwe faces a habitat time bomb amid growing elephant population figures which Government officials have estimated to be at five percent per annum.

The Park, which covers just more than 5,000 km² of scenery incorporating the famed Chilojo Cliffs, is currently home to 9000 elephants despite having an ecological carrying capacity of 3,000 jumbos.

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority officials say they have tried to allow elephants to migrate freely between Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe and the Mozambican national parks of Limpopo but a myriad of socio-ecological factors, including unsustainable hunting practices are pushing them back.

“Elephants are very intelligent and while they might roam out of Gonarezhou, they soon return back to the Park as us and our partners have created a safe haven for them,” said Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) Director-General Fulton Mangwanya.

“Gonarezhou is in the international boundary and any increased poaching pressure of key species in neighbouring countries has implications on the Park,” Mangwanya continued.

“The landscape is connected under the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area umbrella, to add to that landmines in the Sengwe Tshipise corridor cut off the natural migration route for the growing elephant herd,” he added.

“Even in north-west Matabeleland, in the landscape of the five-country Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), the situation is similar as the presence of landmines makes large areas a lethal habitat for both animals and people.”

KAZA TFCA straddles Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, which represent 70% of the remaining savanna elephants on the African continent, covering 520,000 square kilometres.

The KAZA region is set to conduct a joint aerial survey, whose results member states hope will contribute significantly towards the decisions on the sustainable management of KAZA’s elephant population.

The survey will be conducted in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, starting in July – August 2022 and run for 4 months, with an expected cost of nearly US$3 million.

“The survey is a fundamental component of the KAZA Strategic Planning Framework for the Conservation and Management of Elephants. It is also one of the action points of the 2019 Kasane Elephant Summit and a directive by our Heads of State,” Executive Director in the Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism Teofilus Nghitila, said in a press statement in November.

Nghitila noted the IUCN Red List had acknowledged that savanna elephants are stable or increasing in KAZA TFCA, unlike the rest of the continent, “which is a clear testament of the positive outcomes of the management interventions within KAZA.”

The KAZA TFCA elephant population is the largest contiguous transboundary elephant population in the world, inhabiting KAZA’s diverse landscape which is home to an estimated population of two million people.

ZimParks says while the increase in elephant populations in Zimbabwe’s South-East Lowveld is indicative of the safety and security offered by the protected area, authorities are cognisant that large elephant populations could morph into a threat to the survival of other species as signs of population response to those ecological facts start to unfold.

“Increasing elephant populations destroy their own habitat as well as that of other species leading to some animals spilling over to human settlements resulting in human wildlife conflict,” said Mangwanya.

Strikingly, while elephant populations are fighting to stay in, surveys indicate that over half of Zimbabwe’s human population is estimated to have given a great deal of thought to emigrating from the southern African country, both legally and illegally, due to economic uncertainty.