by Steve Scott - Friday, December 1, 2017
An unprecedented tsunami of change has swept through the country of Zimbabwe bringing hope for better days for its people and, perhaps, the country’s beleaguered wildlife populations. What is the future of hunting in Zimbabwe and how exactly did we get here in the first place? The answers are both remarkable and perhaps promising.
Since 1980, Robert Mugabe had been the leader of Zimbabwe. The rebel fighter-turned-politician has been the only president most Zimbabweans have ever known. Growth and stability marked the first two decades of Mugabe’s rule but since the late 1990’s Zimbabwe has been racked by political repression, graft, corruption and the worst economic conditions since post-WWII Germany. And while the 93-year-old president appeared to be as firmly as ever seated in power, Mugabe overplayed his hand and triggered a sequence of events that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago.
In an attempt to position his 52-year-old politically ambitious wife, Grace, in line for the presidency, Mugabe fired vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, accusing him of plotting to take power via witchcraft. A long-time ally and revolutionary brother-in-arms of Mugabe, Mnangagwa was also a favorite of the military. When the military generals saw Mugabe sack a sitting vice president to make way for his own wife, the “coup d’état” in everything but name began. With Mugabe under house arrest, the military began pushing for his resignation. Mass street protests against Mugabe, impending impeachment proceedings in parliament, and a $10 million “retirement” stipend were enough to convince the nonagenarian to resign. Three days later, Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe’s second president (third if you consider the two-and-a-half-day “administration” of Phelekezela Mphoko between Mugabe and Mnangagwa). The remarkable military-led bloodless coup to remove Mugabe ended perhaps even more remarkably with putting a civilian in power. But the new civilian president faces extraordinary challenges rooted in the genesis of Zimbabwe’s long economic depression."Despite what anti-hunting extremists say, properly regulated hunting actually has preserved the very existence of numerous species."
Zimbabwe had once been the “breadbasket” of Africa—a prosperous producer of agricultural commodities and an exemplar of wildlife conservation. But to draw voters’ attention away from stagnating economic conditions in the run up to the 2000 parliamentary elections, Mugabe instituted a series of “land reforms” that resulted in minority white-owned farms and prime wildlife habitat being confiscated without compensation, with most of the better land going to Mugabe cronies and the political elite. The precipitous decline in farm production effectively destroyed the underpinnings of Zimbabwe’s economy, sending the country into economic freefall, mass unemployment and hyper-inflation to a point where 100-trillion-dollar notes were virtually worthless (except on Ebay). The economic chaos also triggered a massive onslaught of poaching that has decimated wildlife in the majority of the country.
But that is history. Where do Zimbabwe and its new leader go from here? As the saying goes, “When you are at the bottom, there is no place to go but up.” Well, probably.
For the most part, Emmerson Mnangagwa is of the same stripe as Mugabe. Though he has denied involvement, the new president has been linked to political mass killings in Matabeleland of ethnic N’dabele’s in the 1980’s. And since this is Africa, there is more than a little possibility the “big man” syndrome rears its ugly head again with the leader plundering public resources as much as he can for as long as he can. My guess and hope is it will not be the case this time.
Zimbabwe has endured nearly 20 years of economic and political repression and Mnangagwe is well aware his people have no patience for more of the same. The new president differs from his predecessor in other ways. An attorney by education, Mnangagwa received education and training in London, China and Egypt, and in his political career he has negotiated numerous trade deals with other nations. Simply put, Mnanagawa has a keen understanding of economics and how a growing GDP will benefit both the country and its citizens … and go a long way toward winning re-election in 2018. An improving economy also bodes well for wildlife.
Zimbabwe’s wildlife was dealt a double shot of devastation when the economy tanked. Most traveling hunters went elsewhere due to the country’s political uncertainty which devalued wildlife as a monetary resource. The falling value of wildlife accelerated the poaching activity in the hard-hit rural areas, especially in the communal lands. But just as failing economies and increased uncertainty can decimate wildlife, improving conditions can have the opposite effect. And in some places in Zimbabwe, positive changes have already begun.
Before the transfer of power in the capital city of Harare, privately-owned concessions in the Bubye Valley and the Matetesi safari area were hard at work improving habitat and protecting wildlife from poaching. In southern Zimbabwe, the Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC) reintroduced 17 lions in 1999. Today the population stands at approximately 400 and represents the largest population and greatest density of lions in the country. In Matetsi 3 and 4, Johan and Philip Kruger’s Chattaronga Safaris have been busy rehabilitating habitat with the drilling of numerous new bore holes and wildlife has responded accordingly. Buffalo herds have recovered to abundance, with growing populations of leopard, lion, sable and plains game in northwestern Zimbabwe to levels of the 1990s. But this did not happen by chance. Both the BVC and Chattaronga invested in wildlife and habitat because of their potential return on the investment.
When wildlife has an economic value, it will survive, but when a wildlife species’ value disappears, usually so does the species. It is without credible debate that hunting most often imbues wildlife with the highest economic value. Despite what anti-hunting extremists say, properly regulated hunting actually has preserved the very existence of numerous species.
President Emmerson Mnangagwe’s nickname is “Crocodile,” purportedly for his talent as a cunning strategist. There might be something to that. After all, he is now the president of Zimbabwe. Given the choice between the miserable status quo and saving Zimbabwe’s rich natural heritage while improving economic conditions, I believe the “Crocodile” will make the right choice. After all, there is an election next year.
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