Wildlife conservation produces big problem for town

December 12, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Sun Staff Correspondent

KARIBA, Zimbabwe -- If saving elephants is a good thing, then the inhabitants of this quiet community in the Zimbabwe highlands have too much of a good thing.

The pachyderms are pests to the people of Kariba. The elephants drink from the town swimming pool and tromp through flower gardens, stripping the tops off trees. They eat any vegetation in sight. And there's not much anybody can do about it.

They have even killed a few people around here.

While many African countries are losing their wildlife to poachers and a changing environment, Zimbabwe has maintained a successful conservation program for three decades. Its biggest problem is not how to stop elephant poaching; it is how to cope with the proliferation that results from success.

"The rainy season hasn't been 100 percent over the last couple of years. The trees dry out, and the elephants come into town looking for vegetation," said Dusty Gates, who has lived 28 years in Kariba, a hilltop town of about 25,000 overlooking a scenic lake and a valley teeming with African wildlife.

"They just go straight through and help themselves," he said.

The Gates' three-bedroom home near the center of town has been a frequent target of the giant intruders, which stomp over their front lawn, rip through the outside fence and help themselves to the big mango tree that shades the house.

To defend their home, Mr. Gates and his wife, Maureen, a chatty, middle-aged blonde, have invented elephant deterrents. They hung a sheet of netting at the entrance to their back patio in an effort to save the orchids and lilies. Mr. Gates also constructed an "elephant intruder alarm" with wires running from their bedroom window to the mango tree about 15 yards away. When a large animal walks into the wires, it sets off a loud hooter in the front yard and triggers a light in the Gates' bedroom.

"We come out and bang pots and pans to scare it off," Mrs. Gates said.

Kariba residents have to cope with wildlife outside their windows because they live in a town surrounded by national park areas where the animals abound.

"We're an urban area located in a national park area. Obviously there are bound to be problems between people and animals," said Godfrey Magombedzi, Kariba's town clerk. He said five or six people have been killed by elephants or buffalo over the past decade, but the entire town has to cope with the routine destruction of property and the general nuisance.

"The problem is not only when people get killed. It's the harassment. People can't move freely. You can't go from your home to the pub. This destroys the social fabric," Mr. Magombedzi said.

Nearly 13 percent of the land in California-sized Zimbabwe has been set aside as national parks, which are the center of a thriving tourist industry.

Parks officials say the country has 70,000 elephants, twice the number the land can sustain, and they want to kill off -- or cull -- about half so the other half can survive and live in harmony with the human population.

They also want to sell the ivory from this culling and use the money to benefit local communities, particularly in rural areas, that must live with the wild animals. But that position puts Zimbabwe at odds with the Swiss-based Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the international body that two years ago imposed a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory.

Zimbabwe and several other countries with large elephant populations, including Malawi, Botswana and South Africa, opposed the ivory ban in 1989 and hope to reverse it in March when the international conservation body meets in Japan. The ban was supported by other African countries such as Kenya, where authorities have not been able to control poaching and where the poachers have dramatically reduced the size of the herds that once flourished there.

"The international world failed to understand the Zimbabwe concept. Our position is that we believe in conservation with utilization," said Taparendava Maveneke, executive director of the Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources (Campfire).

"Yes, we conserve, but we don't conserve just for the beauty of the wildlife. We conserve because we

would like to use. In Western environmental groups, people say, 'Don't touch any elephant. Don't do any hunting. We want people to take pictures. They are beautiful.' "

He said the success of Zimbabwe's conservation program has been its basic premise that the country must reconcile wildlife with human interests. "Wildlife is a resource, but it is a liability too."

"If you have a very large population of elephants, it will end up destroying the fauna, and there will be land degradation. Then they will compete with human beings for space. They will become an enemy. Whereas if we balance them, if we remove a certain number of elephants, the habitat is not destroyed," Mr. Maveneke said.

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