Gonarezhou field report

Date: September 5, 2022

Exploring the spirit of enterprise in Gonarezhou

Three members of the Legacy Landscapes Fund team recently visited Gonarezhou National Park, a legacy landscape in south-eastern Zimbabwe. As well as coming face-to-face with some of the country’s most iconic animals, the team were struck by the park’s immense professionalism and success of community outreach efforts in the area.

Birds in tree silhouette against purple starry sky in Gonarezhou

When we arrived in Gonarezhou, the sky was pitch black.

Even though it was just 6pm, it was wintertime in Zimbabwe, and we had foolishly left our torches buried at the bottom of our luggage. This rookie mistake made finding our tents quite the debacle. After much stumbling, we manged to find the right ones, but got quite the surprise when we saw what was right next to them: a towering elephant munching away at a tree. We fell asleep that night to the sounds of rustling leaves and branches being chomped.

Protecting wildlife

The next morning, cold showers followed the cool night. By contrast, we received a warm welcome from everybody in the park, who made us feel right at home. Our campsite was made up of an eclectic mix of visitors: scientists, researchers, a helicopter pilot.

Hippo and baby hippo wakling near the water

Our day started with an insight into law enforcement at Gonarezhou. We observed rations being arranged as rangers planned their next deployment into the Park. The rotation works on a 21 days on, 9 days off basis to enable the logistical challenge of sending staff into such a vast area. The rangers packed tents, mosquito tents, beans, tea, sugar; everything they needed for their long trip to monitor and protect wildlife. If they find anything worrying, like poachers or snares in the area, they’ll be able to report back.

The team of rangers were highly motivated and well-trained, leaving us feeling that the wildlife here were in safe hands.

Ensuring self-sufficiency

Later, the staff showed us around their warehouse. Gonarezhou is a remote area, so they try to procure supplies from neighbouring communities: vegetables, beans, thatched grass for roofing. Buying locally is not only convenient; it also creates values for the people living around the park. Of course, there’s still a lot of technology that needs to be imported from the UK and South Africa. Overall, it’s a huge organisational undertaking that we could only fully appreciate after seeing it with our own eyes.

It was quite something to behold how tightly and efficiently the logistics were managed. The entire operation is an exercise in self-sufficiency. At a specialised welding workshop, people worked on welding for cars and special holders for water drums to ensure that the rangers  receive fresh, clean water. People there also make furniture, used to furnish the park. These activities impressed on us the spirit of enterprise in Gonarezhou, something we felt keenly again and again throughout the trip.

Biodiversity in action

As we drove around the park, we saw boundless vegetation. In particular, we saw swathes of Mopane forest. Mopane is a slow-growing African hardwood. It’s a beautiful, dense wood and elephants gorge on its branches. Elephants are landscape architects, and because of this, some of the trees are basically pruned at two meters high: once they get higher, they quickly become elephant nosh. This has a significant impact on the landscape, and its effects are currently being researched.

Elephants amid vegetation in Gonarezhou

The park itself is a stunning landscape. We passed by the gushing river, then headed down to the cliffs, a wildlife hotspot. In the glistening evening light, we were lucky enough to see elephants, crocodiles and hippos assembling with our own eyes.

Managing human-elephant conflicts

In a local village, the community, with the help of the Park, takes an innovative approach to managing human-wildlife conflict, which is an ever increasing problem. During the cropping season, some elephants may leave the park, mostly at night, to eat the more palatable crops of neighbouring communities. This greatly affects people’s livelihoods.

One of the initiatives to tackle this is the burning of chilli bricks. Growing chilis serves two purposes. The high-quality, Class A chilis are a cash crop for the community: they’re sold and transported further afield, often being used across the continent to make piri-piri sauce. These chilis fetch a good price for farmers, but they also make use of the lesser quality chilis that can’t be sold. By extracting oil from these Class B chilis and pressing it together with elephant dung, dried chilis and petrol, they produce chili bricks.

Chili block in tree

When burnt, chili bricks emit a spicy essential oil that elephants can’t stand. Elephants, with their long and sensitive noses, are not chili fans. The scent produces a powerful, unpleasant sensation inside their trunks, and thereby acts as a natural elephant deterrent.

These bricks are placed all around the village and fields, with little holders constructed in trees. Chili bricks are a clever way to mitigate human-elephant conflict that kill two birds with one stone: they’re easy to produce, and the crop provides income for the community too. However, elephants are very clever animals, so it’s necessary to continuously devise innovative ideas that keep the conflict to a minimum.

Promoting local livelihoods

We also witnessed the meeting of the local CoCoBa, the community conservation bank. As part of this initiative, locals are provided with training in business and bookkeeping through the park’s community outreach programme.

As group lending facilities are difficult to come by, this small grant-funded bank fills a gap. It allows locals who want to start a business to access a larger lump sum. We met a family that had started breeding chickens for eggs and selling roosters, and a group of women producing grass thatches for roof-making. Sometimes the money is used to pay school fees, or for a big event like a wedding.

CoCoBe bank gathering

People can take out a loan and pay it back in instalments. The process is very transparent. All bookkeeping and saving are done openly, with everybody in the group able to listen and see what’s going on, thereby ensuring no misappropriation of funds. It was wonderful to see the success of this initiative, and to watch the community outreach efforts of the Park yield fruit.

Overall, we were awed by the efficiency and professionalism of the team at Gonarezhou. Managing a national park is no easy feat. There are consistently many balls to keep in the air: the wildlife monitoring, the infrastructure, the community outreach, the welding, the car maintenance, the tourism, the bookkeeping, fundraising. The LLF team was thrilled to be so welcomed by the staff, to catch sight of the beautiful wildlife, and to gain such a deep insight into the management of this rich legacy landscape.

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